Well, it’s almost Oscar season. My ability to keep up to date with the latest and greatest films has admittedly waned since the addition of a third child to our household. But every once and a while I get to steal away on my own, or with a few friends, to catch a worthwhile film. I have been thinking all week about my recent viewing of the French film Of Gods and Men. Earlier this week, a few friends and I gathered to screen this film that recently hit the DVD market in the USA. Of Gods and Men was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and ended up becoming a hit in France and other neighboring European countries. Odd? Or not?
I am a sucker for movies with blatant “spiritual” themes. This one defies many of the conventions that surround faith-themed films. It is the meditatively paced re-telling of a true story that befell a group of Trappist Monks during the Algerian Civil War in 1996. After our viewing, and in the midst of a reverent silence, a friend commented that it was the most “un-manipulative” film he had ever seen. I agree. For such a serious subject matter as martyrdom, the movie forgoes any attempt to manipulate the emotions of the viewer. The cinematography and pacing are refreshingly pure and undefiled. The space created steers the power of Of Gods and Men, and keeps the faith of the brothers rooted in equal parts heaven and earth. As such, it succeeds at conveying an authenticity that is rare among faith based and secular portrayals of religious devotions and conviction within the visual mediums of TV and film.
There is no soundtrack besides the Benedictine chant of the brothers and the introduction of Tchaikovsky’s “Death of the Swan” near the end of the film. Even the dialogue is sparse, forcing the viewer to confront the struggle of the brothers to love their neighbors and each other well, and in so doing to follow their Lord unto death. This commitment turns out to be scandalous stuff. I was equally impressed and uncomfortable. Of Gods and Men is a confession…of faith and reality. It is not an attempt to proselytize or convince the viewer that the actions of the brothers are somehow “reasonable.” The film, thankfully, goes beyond these often trite measures and confronts all of its viewers with the inescapable nature of death. For the brothers, death is then unquestionably set within the context of their belief in both the reality of suffering and the hope of resurrection. That is, after all, the Christian story and the template for all who confess Christian faith. Only in this context do the actions of the brothers make any sense.
It is not chiefly an inspirational film about an isolated group of religious people demonstrating heroic faith. That is too sentimental a take to explain why it was such a hit in Europe. This film touches a nerve because it is a condensed portrayal of a group of humans forced to confront the inevitability of their own deaths, and the suffering that leads up to it. A road every person will surely be forced to walk. Of Gods and Men asks the question, “Am I (the viewer) willing to relinquish control over my own destiny?,” or “Am I willing to consider my own death in the light of my current convictions and their implications?”
Courage is not exemplified through the violence enacted by those willing to take the lives and deaths of others into their own hands. Courage is exemplified by the willingness to confront one’s own being, and then relinquish control for the sake of others. This is love. This is the deepest meaning of the life of Christ for those who follow in His steps and claim Christian faith.
For my friends who do not claim this faith based in cross and resurrection, I hope you see in this film the intention of those who do. I am truly sorry for all of the mixed messages. At least you can find a consistent one in this film. It is a pure portrayal of the faith I represent that thankfully goes beyond rhetoric and reason. “Practicing for death” is not a particularly common phrase used by Christians to describe what they are up to in life, but it is perhaps the best one.
Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen
-Brother Christian (prior of the Trappist Monastery in Of Gods and Men)