On Saturday Alison and I caught the under-the-radar French film Of Gods and Men. I’d read some intensely strong reviews of the film, particularly lauding how honestly and compellingly it captures people of faith. It certainly delivered, but not in the ways I expected.
Of Gods and Men is a film about the true 1996 happenings at a monastery in Algeria, where a small group of French monks live in community with their Muslim neighbors. One monk is the village physician, and they all routinely engage with their neighbors and even attend their religious celebrations. It is a beautiful portrait of interfaith community, of disparate people sharing their lives and love without prejudice. Then, as always, come the bad guys: Islamic terrorists who present a threat to all non-Muslims in the vicinity. The monks are implored by the government to accept military protection or flee the area, and they are each forced to choose whether to remain in service to their community at the high risk of violence.
I won’t give away any more than that, even though the historic account is readily available. The film was a quiet and patient work, predominantly music-less with the exception of some striking Gregorian singing and one powerful staging of a Tchaikovsky piece. I admit I did not find it especially moving, even though I did care very much about the characters and found their plight gripping. It was, alas, one of those movies that challenges a curmudgeonly American like me—who often complains about the MTV-ADD attention spans of modern audiences—to see whether my attention span is any better. It is a simple, thoughtfully paced, almost documentarian accounting of a story about monks…and that may not be many people’s cup of tea.
The film’s highest virtue was its invitation to ask very hard questions, particularly for those who claim to follow Christ. Through its subject matter and its stillness, it begged me to introspect. It forced no agenda on me, told no three-easy-steps morality tale. It sat in a slightly ambiguous quiet, turning up the volume on my own thoughts and fears by contrast. What would I do in that situation? Would I have even been in it to begin with—given up my life to join a monastery, leaving behind comforts and security—coming to work alongside people of a faith I view suspiciously, fearfully? Then, in the heat of violence, in the uncertain tension, would I hold my ground simply to be a servant? The film does articulate some profound thoughts on martyrdom and faith, on loving our enemies, on questioning the goodness of God. Through words of wisdom, beautiful expressions of encouragement, and simply through the time-etched lines on the captivating faces of the monks, I was given a feast of things to digest, contemplate, and be strengthened by.
But ultimately the film left me with inescapably personal questions. Do I fear death? Do I fear the worst things that could happen to my body? to my loved ones? I was left evaluating the strength of my convictions and my faith, especially the conviction that my God has won the victory over death and that there is now nothing (and no one) to fear. In a softly powerful scene, the aging physician Luc says to fellow monk Christian (and I paraphrase): “I do not fear terrorists. I do not fear death. I am a free man.” Oh how he (and his fellow monks) made me long to experience such freedom!