Movie Review: Of Gods And Men
The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.
This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.
The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men.
The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.
As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.
Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.
There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.
This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.
For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington:
I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.
She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.
If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.