Of God and Men

Of Gods and Men is the best film I’ve seen this year–and already is included in my all-time favorites.

It’s not a film for everyone. There are no super-heroes. Just real, very human men, who live close to God–eight French Trappist monks in a monastery in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria. There are no sermons, just exquisite examples of day-to-day life under the rule of St. Benedict. There’s no sex, but lots of true, hard-won brotherhood, and an extraordinary scene in which an old Catholic priest gives advice about love to a young Muslim girl. There are no car chases, but there is one hilarious scene in which giggling Muslim mothers fix the monks’ broken down heap.

There’s no eat-the-scenery dramatics, just an ever-building tension in which each man must look into the depths of his soul and decide what is the price he will pay to keep his vows. There is violence, and it’s not pretty. and there is terrible. mounting fear. But when the movie is over, you can’t move because you’ve just been blessed by something extraordinary.

In 1830 a group of French Cisterian monks, known as Trappists, built the small monastery called Tibrihine. By the 1990s, the time of Algeria’s civil war, a thriving Muslim town has grown up around the monastery. The monks are priests (who take permanent vows, say Mass and give the sacraments) and brothers, (whose vows are temporary and they’re not priests.) They wear simple robes of black and white. They pray, often in chant, eight hours a day, their voices reverberating to the high ceilings like a choir of deep-voiced angels. They grow their own food, and sell their honey at the local market. For years, they’ve run a health clinic where one of the oldest priests, Fr. Luc (Michael Lonsdale) sees as many as 100 patients a day. He dispenses health care along with free clothing and heavy doses of kindness.

The monks live an orderly, serene life. Everything they do is done to honor God, so all their tasks are planned and completed with exquisite care. Silence is their primary companion. Their cloistered life is in complete contradiction to the life in the village, in which there are milling crowds of women and children, dancing, music, feasting, spontaneous, often uninhibited behavior, constant talking and of course, devotion to Allah. What the film shows is the amazing way these two utterly contrasting lifestyles live harmoniously, even happily, together.

Everthing seems idyllic, the Muslims and the monks, living in tolerance and affection, until the civil war of the 1990s. Slowly, inexorably, horrifyingly, the civil war moves from the surrounding mountains into the life of the town itself. Fundamentalist rebels slaughter Croation immigrant laborers and demand that all other foreigners leave Algerian soil. The national military, still smarting from insults from the French colonial days, want the priests to leave because it can’t guarantee their safety.

But the townspeople, who consider the monks an integral part of their lives, want the priests to stay. As one woman says, the people of Tibrihine are “the birds who live on the branches” of the monastery.

One night a band of guerilla soldiers invades the monastery and demands that the doctor accompany them to give medical attention to one of their injured comrades. The prior, Fr. Christian (Lambert Wilson), fought as an officer in the French army and stayed in Algeria when he took his priestly vows. Perhaps it’s his background as a military man that makes Fr. Christian issue unilateral decisions, instead of abiding by the order’s strict code of community agreement.

Fr. Christian refuses to allow the doctor to leave, insisting that tonight, being Christmas Eve, is a sacred night for them. In a moment fraught with apprehension, the rebel leader agrees to leave — and offers his hand to Fr. Christian. The priest hesitates but then decides to take the man’s hand. Has Fr. Christian just made a pact with the devil? Has he sealed his fate, and the fate of his monks, not with a Judas kiss but with a brief handshake?

Every day the pressure on the monks increases. Their serene orderly life breaks down. They struggle to keep in harmony. Their chants become pleas for divine guidance while they seem wracked in indecision. One robust middle-aged monk complains that he didn’t join the order to commit group suicide — he wants to go back to France. Another, who hasn’t seen his family in France for two decades, is suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to see them.

But most of the monks want to stay where they are, no matter what the consequences will be. “This is my home,” one says. “I belong here now,” another says. “We are men of peace,” Fr. Christian says.

In the excruciatingly tense conflicts of the film, the pressures on the monks increase, and each of them, must decide — will he leave or stay? In a commitment that binds them to one another, and haunts all those who learn their story, the men eventually decide — no matter what the cost, they will honor their vows and stand, even if their knees are trembling in fear, stand in the radiance of peace.

When a monk visits from Germany, he brings a treat–a few bottles of beer. As the monks drink, instead of listening to one of them read aloud from the Bible as they usually do at dinner, they lose themselves in the strains of Swan Lake on a phonograph record. The evocative music, such a rare treat, so uncommonly emotional, allows them to transcend their fear and transform an ordinary meal into an unforgettable Last Supper.

The rebels come again one wintry night and kidnap seven of the monks, planning to use them to negotiate for release of their captured comrades. One monk was able to hide under his bed, a visiting monk and retreatants stayed safe in a guest house some distance away. As the monks are marched up the mountainside they seem to disappear in a swirling blizzard that is the color of their robes. .

Of Gods and Men has been wildly popular in France, winning that country’s Oscar, among other awards. As befits its main characters, the film is contemplative in nature, moving much more slowly than most American filmgoers are used to. I urge you to allow yourself to sink into the film’s pace, almost as if it were a prayer, because, it many ways, that’s what the film really is.

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