Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et Des Dieux)
In the early 1990s members of a French monastery in Northern Algeria were under pressure to leave the country, as the conflict between the corrupt government and local militants escalated. The terrorists warned all foreigners to flee immediately or face grim consequences. For two hours Of Gods and Men deftly and passionately examines how each monk reacts and responds to this ultimatum. For two hours Of Gods and Men delivers a moving sermon on brotherhood, community and sacrifice.
Despite winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it is only now being released in the UK. The delay has, however, worked in its favour for two reasons. First, its themes are closely linked with those of the Christmas message. Second, the recent attacks on Christian communities in Baghdad demonstrate how these concerns are current and ongoing.
From the opening shots of the film, the viewer is introduced to the daily life of the Cistercian monks at their monastery in Tibhirine. Their repeated activities form a recognisable rhythm as they go about working in the fields, operating a medical clinic and visiting local villagers. The film adopts this rhythm too, allowing you to draw alongside each monk and appreciate his concerns.
Surrounded by Muslim neighbours, the monks’ routine mirrors their daily calls to prayer. Their relationship with the villagers is warm and familial – each monk is respected as an elder and invited along to discuss matters of village life with the Imams. This is no vaguely organised or post modern ‘Inter-Faith’ outreach, but rather two ancient communities with a deep love for each other. The Cistercians have studied the Koran – a helpful fact, as it turns out, when they deal with the belligerent military or handle the terrorists, who in turn are strongly aware of Isa amir e’salam Jesus, the prince of peace. It is, if not a template, at least an example of living openly as a Christian in a Muslim country.
As political tensions rise, the monks are presented with a choice: leave their community and return to France, or remain and possibly fall prey to the spreading violence. Although hardly a new dilemma for Christian communities, seldom is it portrayed with such insight or care. Instead, Of Gods and Men avoids glib or sentimental exchanges. As the monks sit down to discuss their future, their motives are entirely exposed. Their fear regarding the future is palpable, with some expressing a desire to go somewhere safer for sensible reasons. I would certainly understand.
Each monk wrestles with his choice – a choice which their abbot leaves to the individual. The anguish expressed in their prayers is as believable as any of the faith conflicts I’ve experienced. The tears and doubt are all reminders of the very human nature of looking to God for an answer and hoping, begging, to find peace. As one monk pleads with another, ‘Surely dying for my faith shouldn’t keep me up at night?’
It is worth mentioning that there’s no soundtrack, no Hollywood-esque manipulative music to pull on your heart strings. Only one song, Swan Lake, is used in the entire film and is played on an old radio during a meal where, in a moment of communal humour, they share wine and cheese – these are French monks, after all. It is a scene which evokes the brotherhood of The Last Supper.
As each monk traverses the arc of his decision-making journey we too are invited to consider the arguments of both sides. At each point, they come together to pray and share the Bible – always refreshing viewing in a movie. As the abbot reminds, ‘The Good Shepherd doesn’t leave his flock.’ The decisions they reach are not arrived at lightly; they unite them, as one monk remarks, ‘We are here to be brothers.’ The film is saturated in their faith.
The monks and their brotherhood make Of Gods and Men a compelling and moving film. Their love of their enemies is inspiring and as such makes highly recommended viewing. A choice this fundamental is not easy, even for men of faith. To a worried monk’s question the abbot replies, ‘But you’ve already laid your life down once. It is through poverty, failure and death that we advance on Him.’ How true.
Of Gods of Men is on release, certificate 15