(Des homes et des dieux)

Dir. Xavier Beauvois. France. 2010

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As Vivekananda has said, “The intensest love that humanity has ever known has come from religion, and the most diabolical hatred that humanity has known has come from religion.” Both of these elements are present in Xavier Beauvois Of Gods and Men, the story of seven Roman Catholic French Trappist monks kidnapped by radical Islamists from their monastery in the village of Tibhirine in Algeria during the 1990s Algerian Civil War. The film depicts the sacrifices people of good will in both religions are willing to make for each other, and that the separation between religions is not an unbridgeable gap.  

Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Of Gods and Men stars Lambert Wilson as Christian, Prior of the monks, and 79-year-old Michael Lonsdale as a world weary medic who treats up to 150 Moslem villagers each day. The film derives its title from the Book of Psalms, Psalm 82:6-7 quoted at the beginning of the film: "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes." Filmed in Morocco, the film shows the daily life of the Trappist monks before the terrorist threat becomes real.  

Though a large part of their day consists of contemplation and devotion, living in close contact with the Muslim population allows them to interact with them in a positive way, healing the sick, selling honey in the nearby markets, and caring for the aged. In addition, daily chores such as cooking, gardening, loading wood for the fireplace, and cleaning take up a large part of the day. Soon word gets around about the murder of European workers on a construction site by the terrorists and the monks recoil in horror when they learn about the stabbing of a woman riding on a bus by Islamic fundamentalists simply because she was not wearing a veil.  

The Algerian government asks the monks to leave for their own safety but Christian tells them that their calling is to serve the people of the community and he insists on remaining, though he is willing to let the other monks decide. The issue becomes suddenly more immediate when a group of fundamentalists show up at the monastery on Christmas Eve demanding medicine for their wounded colleagues. Though the request is refused, Christian quotes the Koran to their spokesman Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi) and they end up shaking hands, though the Prior senses rightly that they will be back.  

When all agree that they will not abandon the monastery even at the risk of death, the dramatic high point of the film is reached when the monks recreate the Last Supper by sitting around a small table drinking wine and listening to a recording of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet. As the camera pans from face to face, we can observe a beatific smile on some faces and tears on others, demonstrating an inner poetry and reverence for life. The monks are not Christian moralists but spiritualists confronting the extremes of the human condition, characters who point the way to overcoming despair. 

The monks, like the Curé de Torcy in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, "love poverty with a deep, reasoned, lucid love as equal loves equal," expressing the eternal struggle of the spirit to know Christ and to come to terms with his anguish. The heroes of the film are not saints. They are flesh and blood human beings, full of ambiguity and fear, but never far from compassion and humility, willing to offer us the possibility of a world transformed by grace.  


Howard Schumann

See Jamie Garwood's review Of Gods and Men.

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