February 8, 2011


“Of Gods and Men” is a feature film made in France about the seven Cistercian monks killed in Algeria in 1996 (subtitled in English). It’s up for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film—a pretty big deal, especially due to the fact that the film itself (not just the subject matter) is profoundly and explicitly and—I would say--purely religious.

It’s almost as if the monks are truly telling their own story from beyond the grave. The motivation for their whole lives was simply and only God and His people. The motivation for their martyrdom (which they could have avoided by choosing to flee or accept protection—both luxuries not afforded to those whom they served) was simply and only God and His people. But although there is a simplicity and single-heartedness here, the lives of the monks were fraught with complex tensions, and, each having their own temperament, they each faced their agony in their own way. But together.

This is a very European, very French film. It moves slowly and is reminiscent of “Into the Great Silence,” but with dialogue. Watch it when you are calm or want to be calm. It’s a prayer experience. You must take time to reflect on the radical Gospel concepts put forth. I can’t think of a more perfect movie for Holy Week.

The movie is also very French in its poetic approach to God, religion and life. A poetry with teeth, that you can hang your hat on, but at the same time that is very tender like Jesus who is “Infinite Love.” (When’s the last time you heard that in a movie?) And--mais oui!--nothing sounds like the name “Jesus” in French, does it?

The film takes its time, almost to get you into the rhythm of the lives of the monks. We chop wood with them, attend to mothers and children in the free clinic, make and sell honey, work the land, eat in common, but most of all pray together. There are lots and lots of prayer times, with beautiful singing in French: “hymns and Psalms and inspired songs.” The Psalms, in particular, become more and more germane and real as the danger increases. There’s a beautiful scene were the liturgically-vested, white-robed monks throw their arms on each other’s shoulders in a chain as they sing their prayers (the ever-strong Psalm 141!) while helicopters menace over the chapel.

The monks also deliberate much together. They sit down in council and discern. What should they do? Stay or go? What would be the point of each course of action? What would their Master do?

The monks are middle-aged or elderly. They chafe a bit against each other (a Canadian priest of the Oratory once said: “community life is like a bunch of pennies in a bag rubbing against each other, shining each other up”), but the love runs so much deeper in a thousand and one little details and kindnesses.

“Of Gods and Men” is also a marvelous film for interreligious dialogue/reflection. Algeria is a Muslim country, colonized by the French. This causes built-in problems, but also a coming together of two nations and religions with a great deal of mutual respect. The common people love the monks and the monks love them. An armed terrorist apologizes for bursting in on the monks on Christmas—the birth of the “Prince of Peace.” Muslim village elders decry the violence against non-combatants erupting in the Civil War. This is a very nuanced view of Islamic-Christian relations.

Why do these monks—over ten years later—still capture our imagination? Because they knew what they were getting into. They understood the brutality they could face. Although some hesitated to stay, others did not. As one said to another: “We already gave our lives by becoming monks.” Their act of heroism, of resistance, of love, of freedom (freedom is a big theme!) was to stay and carry on with their daily lives of harmony, charity and worship. Their act of selflessness reminded me of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (another French monk martyred in Algeria).

I rarely watch movies twice. But this one needs to be seen over and over. It’s a meditation. Few films have ever gotten this close to the heart of Christianity.


--Heathen nun that I am, I got a little annoyed with the very many prayer times. But, good gravy-stains, I thought later, why SHOULDN’T we see a plethora of them, experience them! The praise of God is the raison d’etre of the monks’ lives (and not just some social activism) and, ahem, the raison d’etre of, like, everyone else’s life on the planet, too? What better words in the words of men than the words of God? When there are no more words to say, what better words in our mouths than God’s Word?

--Pope Benedict is virtually PLEADING with us these days to READ and REFLECT on THE WORD OF GOD!

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: The Incarnation and Resurrection shine through this movie like sun through stained-glass. There is a continuous eschatological expectation shot throughout, even before Death begins rattling his rusty sabre….

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: A lovely and funny description (as only the French can!) of what love is. The doctor-monk talks to a teenage Muslim girl. He even begins to outline BJP2G’s stages of love from “Love and Responsibility”: attraction, desire….

--Slowest scene in the film: Father Superior walks up the hill. And walks and walks and walks and walks and walks and walks.... Somebody wake up the editor!!!!

--MY community watched the film before me and only complained about one scene: the “Last Supper” scene. It didn’t work for them because the monks put on a cassette of “Swan Lake” which plays rather bombastically while the camera pans back and forth over their faces. The problem is, we forget that the sound is diegetic, and begin to think the filmmakers made a really back choice of scored music here. Some of the characters looked very self-conscious and camera shy for the first and only time, while others burned up the screen, ready for their close-up. The ancient Fr. Jean-Pierre is the best little actor of the lot. Father Superior at this point gets a little melodramatic. However, this scene DID work for me. I kept thinking, maybe they DID play “Swan Lake.” (There were actually 8 monks in the monastery when the abduction happened, so there is a living eye-witness of everything that took place before. He is still alive at 86.)

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: Spiritual but not religious? You just split yourself in two. “Spiritual” is of the soul. “Religious” is of the body. We need both. If we’re “spiritual” and not “religious,” then we’re just tripping out on something unseen, interior, unverifiable that has no consequences in materiality. If we’re “religious” but not “spiritual,” our religion is empty, “lip service,” external formalities, hollow, heartless. (“Religare” means “to bind.” I sure want to bind myself physically to God, too! And, we’re ALL spiritual any way because we’re ALL body and soul.)

--This movie reminded me of another recent French movie, “Lourdes” (2010). The French are not afraid of the human body, the human face. They don’t dress it up too much. It’s just there in all its plainness, stillness.

--The monks deliberations are in faith, trust, natural and supernatural reasoning.

--It’s all about imitating the helpless Christ-Child and the vulnerable Pierced-One who has the power to lay down His life and take it up again, and us with Him.

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  1. Anonymous9:13 AM

    When do we have the pleasure of seeing this in the Chicago area?????

  2. I would seriously love to see this in the suburban Maryland/D.C. area! Silver Theater (in Silver Spring), anyone?