Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men is a French-language film based on the true story of the martyrdom of Catholic monks in Algiers in the 1990s. The Cistercian monks, who had lived peaceably serving a mostly Muslim community, became trapped in the battle between government forces and Islamic-extremist groups, a battle that escalated in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter by Islamic fundamentalists of a group of foreign workers. The film is not so much about the political conflict as it is about the lives of the monks, their love of their Muslim neighbors, and their gradual realization that the God they serve is calling them not to abandon their post in the face of the threat of violence. Of Gods and Men is a beautiful film, a film that has the patience to allow the humanity and holiness of very simple lives to emerge slowly. It is the best religious film in many, many years.
With cinematography by Caroline Champetier, a long-time collaborator of Jean-Luc Godard’s, the film is beautifully shot. Attentive to the role of silence in the lives of the monks, the film meticulously focuses on faces, on the silent communication of grimaces, gestures, smiles, and tears. In this, the film calls to mind both Ingmar Bergmann’s films and the recent documentary Into Great Silence about the lives of Carthusian monks in the French Alps. That film captured the rhythm of monastic life in the strictest and most isolated order of Catholic monks.
The rhythm of silence and chant is also evident in the lives of the Cistercian monks in Algiers, but with this important difference: The Cistercian monks interact quite freely with the local Muslim community. One of the monks, Luc (in a marvelous performance by Michael Lonsdale of Munich fame), serves as a medical doctor for the local community, but he also provides much-needed shoes and occasional advice about love to confused teen girls. In a quiet yet striking exchange, a girl asks him how you know you are in love. After he lists various emotions that one feels in the midst of love, she asks about his own love. He explains that he moved from mere human love to another love and “answered the call of that love,” something he has been living for many decades now. Of course, the scene illustrates his human love. One of the best things about this film — something that has baffled critics who cannot decide whether the film is religious or humanistic — is the way it displays the inseparability, in the lives of these monks, of love of neighbor and love of God.
The link is at the root of the decision of the monks to remain in Algiers, even as violence encroaches on the local community. The film is not trying to make grand political statements about Islamic fundamentalism or the West. There is a passing complaint about French imperialism and a bit more discussion of the way in which Islamic radicals distort the Koran, but that’s it for direct political statement. What is clear is that the monastery is to be a refuge from the violence of the wider world. On that basis, the monks refuse an offer from the police to place armed guards on monastic grounds. When, on Christmas Eve, gun-toting terrorists enter the grounds demanding medicine, the monks request that they put down their arms or retreat to the boundary of the monastery to discuss their demands.
If viewers are left wondering about the wider conflict, they have more than enough to contemplate in the lives of the monks themselves. As the violence increases and moves ever closer, the monks begin to deliberate together, as is their common practice, about what they ought to do. Government forces urge them to leave, and some of their members are inclined to do so. In an initial discussion, one member remains undecided and states that they need to pray and talk further. And we watch them do just that.
As they chant the Psalms, engage in communal celebration of the Mass, and ponder religious icons, we watch them, one by one, coming to a deeper recognition of what it means for each of them individually and as a community to follow Christ. One thing that is not spelled out in the film is that — in the tradition of St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism — monks take a vow of stability, to live out their vocation with a particular community in a specific place. In the Middle Ages, a time of great flux and nomadic social existence, stability provided a palpable sign of God’s enduring presence, a witness to God’s fidelity. The same is true in Algiers in 1996.
As the monks come to embrace the decision not to abandon their community, the film wonderfully captures a range of emotions: fear and courage, doubt and faith, frustration and hope, the temptation to despair and the love that binds. The monks are becoming formed in the image of the One who has created and redeemed them, the One whose name they announce to the terrorists as the Prince of Peace. Another great achievement in the film has precisely to do with its restraint concerning political messages. The filmmakers as much as the monks featured in the film understand that the testimony of the martyrs is of One who gives peace not as the world gives peace. That is precisely what makes Of Gods and Men such a profound religious film, a film as inspiring as it is sorrowful.