Of Gods and Men reminded me how captivating film can be as an art form. French director Xavier Beauvois masterfully refrains from sensationalizing the true story of seven Trappist monks who perished in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. Instead, he dips his brush in a rich palette of sound, color, image, and silence to paint a visible likeness of the interior lives of these men against the backdrop of the conflict in North Africa.
The first portion of the film follows the monks in their daily activities. We see them at prayer, eating together, harvesting honey to sell in the market, and visiting with the villagers eking out a subsistence living outside the monastery walls. Providing basic medical care is a key part of their mission or relationship with the community. Lines of neighbors extend outside the metal gate waiting to get into the clinic. Each patient is seen in turn, sent home with packets of medicine and a measure of hope drawn from the deep well of the faith of these men.
Later on, as clashes between the military and insurgents begin to weigh heavily on the monks, their love for each other and for the neighbors is tested. The abbot or prior, the elected leader of the group based in this remote outpost, challenges the men to consider how their calling to the contemplative life is equally a calling to this specific time and place. The men weigh the opportunity to leave against the concept of solidarity or bearing witness. Should they stay with the villagers who will also be likely victims of the fermenting religious unrest? Or should they exercise caution and depart? At one point, an Algerian government official vehemently urges the abbot to take the men away, reminding him that they have freedom — the freedom that comes in the form of French citizenship and money to travel.
The doctor, Brother Luc, takes up the theme of liberation. He speaks of the freedom he has as one who has fully given his life over to God. For this reason, he remarks, he is not afraid to die. Here we also encounter another strong theme woven throughout the film, the mystery or paradox of the Christian faith. The first threats to the monks’ lives are made on Christmas. That night they celebrate the incarnate Christ, his arrival on earth not as a King or a divine being, but as a child who will eventually die. They are also keenly aware that their very salvation depends on death — that to die is to live. This beautiful mystery becomes more important than whether they will stay or go.
Not a word of dialogue is wasted in Of Gods and Men. Indeed, one of the most poignant scenes used barely six words. The abbot and the youngest monk, Brother Christophe, have taken a walk out onto a craggy hill nearby. The latter is consumed by fear. He cannot sleep. He is broken. In a confessional moment, overcome by emotion, he admits to his superior that when he prays, he hears nothing.
This crisis of faith could be set in the context of nearly anyone’s life. It doesn’t have to be the turbulence of political mayhem that tries one’s soul. It can be in a period of infirmity, the death of a spouse, or the loneliness of a stay-at-home mother. Brother Christophe admits to the very human fear that our belief is misplaced or that in our brokenness we have somehow lost the voice of God when we needed him the most.
Of Gods and Men particularly resonates during this Lenten season. As Christians move closer to the joyous resurrection on Easter Sunday, they must first walk through the darkness and despair of Christ’s Passion. I am keenly aware of how the monks’ willingness to exercise their freedom to stay became the greatest expression of love they could share with the Algerian people. This is a beautiful film that exquisitely handles the complexity of humility and sacrifice in a genre that perhaps too often tends toward simple heroism.