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Film Review: Of Gods and Men

Billboard
by Birgit Oberhofer | June 20, 2011

The French movie “Of Gods and Men” (2010) narrates the true story of nine Trappist monks, living in the monastery of Tibhirine, Algeria. Over the years they have established a deep friendship with the Muslim population of the village, taking part in every aspect of the village’s life. In 1996 the monks get caught in the conflict between the corrupt and militant Algerian government and the Armed Islamic Group, a terrorist organization. Confronted with the decision whether to stay or to leave the monastery, they choose to stay, not without going through challenging conflicts, individually and with each other. They eventually were kidnapped and found beheaded. Nobody knows the truth about their tragic deaths. The Armed Islamic Group of Algeria claimed full responsibility for the incident. However, according to documents from the French secret services, it is possible that the killing was a mistake carried out by the Algerian army during a rescue attempt.

The movie depicts very vividly the daily routine of monastic life. Director Xavier Beauvios chose to live for six days at a monastery in France to prepare himself for the production of the movie. Some inspiration was taken from writings of two of the Tibhirine monks, Christian de Chergé (the Leader) and Christophe Lebreton.

The film starts with a quote from Psalm 82: "I said, 'You are "gods"; you are all sons of the Most High,' but you will die like mere mortals", which captures very well the tension that carries through the entire story.

The first few scenes take the viewer into the peaceful and harmonious rhythm of monastic life. Times of prayer, Gregorian chants of psalms and the celebration of the Eucharist are intersected by scenes of shared meals, working the land, medical care for the villagers and the sales of honey at the public market. Their quiet and prayerful life-style is interrupted by the growing violence of terrorists toward foreigners as well as opposing Muslim groups. Even the villagers can’t understand what is going on and turn to the monks for advice and admit their confusion and fear. The monks are offered protection by the Algerian army, which Brother Christian refuses. This decision made without consulting other community members, ignites a conflict among the co-friars. “We didn’t elect you to decide by yourself,” they forcefully point out. The necessity to decide whether to stay or to leave is hanging in the air like a threat and deprives some of them from their sleep. Should they stay and support the village and its inhabitants until the end or leave to save their lives? "We were called to live here, in this country, with this people, who are also afraid," one of them points out. "I didn't come here to commit collective suicide," counters Brother Christophe. "I became a monk to live, not to sit back and have my throat slit," scoffs another.

The following scenes show how each of them struggles with the decision in different ways. The images show beautifully their different personalities and ways to deal with this existential question, their fears, egos and complicated feelings. But while each of them goes through their own inner conflicts, the monks stay united through prayer and the recitation of the psalms. Music of praise and sorrow permeates the film and unifies the monks when they are at odds with each other. Singing apparently had the same effect on the actors: Lambert Wilson, who plays monastery leader Brother Christian, said recently that through learning to chant psalms, the actors "became brothers." "To chant psalms is to breathe together, to share the Breath of Life," said Olivier Rabourdin, who plays Brother Christophe.

As it turns out, each of the monks decides to stay at the monastery and be faithful to their vocation until the end. They feel that God had sent them there for a reason and that they can’t abandon the people who they serve, whose trust they have gained and who rely on them for support and strength. In one scene, two of the monks confess to the village leaders, "We are like birds on a branch. We don't know if we'll leave." One Muslim woman answers, "You are the branch. If you go, we lose our footing."

Knowing that this decision could mean their proximate death, Brother Christian writes a letter that may as well count as his testament:

“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. ... May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha'Allah.”

The movie treats in a beautiful way what it means to live out one’s vocation until the end. It speaks of the depth of a life for God in prayer and strong bonds of a community united by mutual love. It also speaks about human vulnerability and the power of forgiveness. Even though it tells a violent story, the film leaves the viewer with a sense of peace and inner calm. It may be that this is because the viewer understands that even though seven of the nine monks were killed, the terrorists can’t claim a victory. The monks had made their decision to stay and to accept whatever the consequences were out of love for God and for the people they were called to serve. It was love that had the last word! A love that surpasses all human reason. A love that is stronger than death. And because it was a decision of love, it made them free, as testified by Luc, the monastery’s doctor: "I'm not scared of death, I'm a free man," Luc announces. "Let the free man through!"

Click here to watch the trailer!

Author information Birgit Oberhofer

Birgit Oberhofer is originally from Munich, Germany where she graduated from Ludwigs-Maximilians-Universität with a Master of Arts in Education Science, Psychology and Theology in 1999. After two years of formation in Italy she became a consecrated member of the Focolare Movement, a lay ecclesial movement, living in one of their houses in Cologne, Germany. There she worked as a program developer and grant writer for one of the biggest charity organizations in Germany, running programs in the field of Adult Formation and Social Work. In December 2007 she moved to Chicago and became the Assistant Director of Catholics on Call in July 2008.

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