Of Gods and Men
There may be hope for France yet. At the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, held in the southern region of a country whose official religion is none at all, a film about Christian hope was given the Grand Prix, the festival's second highest honor. (It went on to snag several more prestigious French film awards.) That audiences knew beforehand that the film ends in the murder of eight Catholic monks makes its warm reception all the more striking. Add the fact that the film fixates on praying to Christ and chanting the Psalms, and you've got yourself a mystery in the homeland of Marquis de Sade.
Of Gods and Men (in French, with English subtitles), now in limited release in the U.S., explores the spiritual anatomy of a community of Christians whose love is tested by imminent violence. Taking its name from Psalm 82 ("I said, 'You are "gods"; you are all sons of the Most High,' but you will die like mere mortals"), the film recounts the 1996 Tibhirine massacre, in which seven French Cistercian monks, living in a monastery in Algeria, find themselves caught in conflict between Algeria's government and the Armed Islamic Group. The monks were later kidnapped and beheaded; their bodies were never found. Fifteen years later, amid ongoing investigations, the precise circumstances of their deaths are unknown. While director Xavier Beauvois clearly pays homage to the monks, he isn't interested in solving that mystery as much as asking why the men didn't try to save their lives in the first place.
The answer, the film suggests, lies in the men's devotion to God, expressed in daily worship, prayer, and caring for the Muslim villagers with whom they share a quiet countryside. The film's structure follows that of monastic life, moving from extended scenes of the eight men chanting and taking Communion, to meeting with village leaders and selling honey in the market. Music of praise and sorrow permeates the film (as it should—Cistercian monks sing for four hours each day), and unifies the monks when they are at odds with each other. Singing apparently had the same effect on the actors: Lambert Wilson, who plays monastery leader Brother Christian, said recently that through learning to chant Psalms, the actors "became brothers." "To chant Psalms is to breathe together, to share the Breath of Life," said Olivier Rabourdin, who plays Brother Christophe.
The men's psalms grow dire when a group of foreign workers in the village is murdered by terrorists, inciting fear in the region and division in the monastery. But Brother Christian refuses the protection of the army, deciding the brothers will stay to show solidarity: "We were called to live here, in this country, with this people, who are also afraid." "I didn't come here to commit collective suicide," counters Brother Christophe. "I became a monk to live, not to sit back and have my throat slit," scoffs another. Discord grows when gunmen storm the monastery on Christmas Eve, demanding medical supplies. Brother Christian handles them deftly, quoting from the Qur'an to show goodwill, even slipping in an evangelistic message: "Tonight is different from other nights …. We celebrate the birth of the Prince of peace: Sidna Aissa." Yet all the monks fear another, bloodier, encounter, and each wrestles with whether following Christ means waiting passively to die.