20 March 2011

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, 2010)

Image culled from http://www.sonyclassics.com/ofgodsandmen/.
Brief Summary (with no spoilers):

Loosely based on the true story of seven French monks kidnapped in Tibhirine, Algeria in 1996, Of Gods and Men follows a small community of Trappist monks from their quiet, monastic routines, and daily interactions with the nearby North African community, into the maelstrom of uncertainty, fear, courage, and violence that erupts when a band of Islamist militants begin to murder foreigners in the region. At first, the crisis wreaks havoc on the tiny Christian community, but the brothers soon manage to unite and confront their terrible choice together: will they remain in their monastery, in solidarity and friendship with the Algerian village they love so completely, or will they bow to the pressure from Algerian officials and the military—not to mention their own survival instinct—and flee to a safer place?

My Comments (may contain spoilers):

It's nearly impossible for me to an imagine a film this Christian (or perhaps "Christian in this way" would be more accurate) coming out of Hollywood. Of course, it should be even more impossible to imagine a movie this Christian to be made in oh-so-secular France. But Of Gods and Men is the most Christian movie I've seen in a long time—the kind of movie that, in my ideal world, busloads of American Christians would be going to see, and which megachurches would rent out theaters to screen for anyone who wants to see it. Sigh...

One of my strongest impressions from watching the movie is a kind of awe that a movie that moves so slowly and deliberately—some might even find it boring (more than one person sitting near me fell asleep occasionally, if the sounds I was hearing were any indication)—could, at the same time, be so unbearably tense. The suspense is created masterfully: in the one explicitly violent scene, a number of Croatian workers are slaughtered—throats slit by extremists. That horrific, bloody image haunts the rest of the film; even early on, it's nearly unbearable to imagine seeing the decent, Christian monks suffer the same fate. So every dark night, every shadow, every sudden noise for the rest of the movie was fearsome for me, watching the movie—in a faint echo of the kind of terror the monks lived through in the actual world.

The movie's editing reinforces the clash of circumstances on which the film's narrative focuses. After many of the quietest scenes in the movie, a jarring sound cut to a piece of heavy construction equipment or a ululating crowd of Muslim women and men celebrating a boy's birthday(?) made me jump out of my seat! Perhaps that was a little heavy-handed, but it was effective, nevertheless, suggesting the dichotomy between the quietude of monasticism and both the everyday energies and the violent passions of life outside the monastery's walls.

Of Gods and Men offered profound insight into the intersection of the loyalty and obedience that typifies the monastic life, the particular love and friendship lived by these seven men, and especially their special commitment to peace and non-violence, and the courage required to honor that commitment in the face of almost-certain death. At times, both during the movie and after, I was reminded of The Mission (1986), another tale of violence and love and the clash of cultures between Christian missionaries and indigenous people. Only, in Of Gods and Men, there's really no Rodrigo, urging his brothers to take up arms in self-defense, and in the defense of the villagers they love. There's only the question of whether the monks should stay and die, or leave and live.

(Overt spoilers are coming...) 

Actually, that's where Of Gods and Men became truly impressive to me for the monks' devotion to God is such that their choice is utterly transformed in a way that would make no sense to a person who has not given his/her life to God. For the monks, their crisis becomes a matter of staying to live versus leaving to die. That is, they find—even those whose initial impulse is to escape—the literal truth in the paradoxical words of Christ: "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Moreover, they bear witness (implicitly) to the challenging teaching of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in The Cost of Discipleship, especially) that following Christ—taking up Christ's cross—is suffering, essentially and inevitably. The movie takes incredible risks by devoting substantial screen time to homilies, hymn-singing, and theological conversation, but I never felt the words to be anything less than deeply profound and perfectly appropriate. I left the movie feeling like I'd been to church—and, even more impressively, that I'd heard a truly wondrous sermon. The impact will not fade quickly.

I highly recommend this film, especially for people of faith—I can imagine the movie being shown in classes at Eastern, where I teach, for instance. 9 out of 10 stars.

Random Tidbits (spoilers included):

  • I didn't want to include this criticism in the main comments, above, because right now I'm still really feeling the glow of this film, and I didn't want to ruin it for myself or any readers. But I am a little troubled by one aspect of this film. It's actually the flip side of one of the movie's strengths. Of Gods and Men is peopled by very human characters. Whether loving or violent, Christian or Arab, French or African, the people are humans, not angels or animals. The somewhat disturbing thing is that even the militants who kidnap the monks (and presumably kill them) are actually somewhat gentle. As they come to collect the brothers, they push and cajole, but they never strike the monks or shove them violently. In fact, when they take Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), who is elderly and asthmatic, they're almost gentle with him, half pushing/pulling and half embracing him as the lead him from the monastery. Perhaps there are extremists—even ones who have committed to using terrorism as a tactic—who are, at the same time, humane and kind with their victims. But, although I strongly believe that it's hateful and wrong to dehumanize one's enemies, I also feel that the movie might perpetrate an injustice by romanticizing kidnappers and murderers. But, no one knows the details of what happened when the monks were abducted, so if the point here is what really happened, there's not much we can say. Still, it's a question in my mind this morning.

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