Starring Lambert Wilson, Michel Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin
UK general release: 3 December 2010
I have heard some good things about Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes Et Des Dieux), which won the Cannes 2010's Grand Prix and is France's entry for the 2011 Oscar for best foreign language film. The film explores the tensions and choices faced by a peaceful Cistercian community in North Africa as it encounters the prospect of assassination by Islamists. It has received excellent reviews, even if some British reviewers seem confused by the concept of monasticism and the contemplative life.
Of Gods and Men is based on real events, and on real men. It is the story of the seven Cistercian monks who were killed in 1996 by Algerian Islamic fundamentalists. Some of us might already be familiar with this event, or remember it being reported on in the news. I remember attending a service in Norwich Cathedral a few years ago, during which reference was made to these men who had decided to stay and die in the place God had called them to. Following the service I read some more about the community and their final days. It will be interesting, then, to see how this powerfully moving, brutal, and yet serene story translates to the big screen.
The monks of the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, near the village of Tibhirine, knew that they were living during troubled times, had been threatened with death before their kidnapping. Therefore, they had been given enough time to leave the country and return to France and save their own lives. They chose, though, to prepare for death and made a conscious decision not to leave their monastery. They forgave their assassins in advance, and proclaimed their love for the people of Algeria.
Although belonging to a contemplative Order, these Trappists were involved in their local community, and ministered to the people as doctors, care-givers and friends - regardless of the fact that most, if not all, the locals were Muslim. They loved their people, and the majority of local Algerians were deeply attached to the monks, too. These monks - Fr Christian de Chergé, Br Luc Dochier, Fr Christophe Lebreton, Br Paul Favre-Miville, Br Michel Fleury, Fr Bruno Lemarchand, and Fr Célestin Ringeard - are now often referred to as the "Atlas Martyrs".
The following excerpts are taken from Donald Clarke's review of the film as it appears in The Irish Times (please click on the link to read the review in full):
Beauvois’s fine film, which becomes more affecting the longer its left to percolate in the brain, offers impressively nuanced portraits of a large array of peculiar characters. On reflection it deserves the Grand Prix (essentially the silver medal) it picked up at Cannes.Two of the monks escaped the kidnapping which led to the murder of the others. One of them, Br Jean-Pierre, is still alive and was sent a copy of the film, on DVD. Writing to the film's producer, Etienne Comar, he told her that "he could see the community of brothers once more... it gave him peace to see them again."
Early on in an otherwise pacific film, we encounter a moment of appalling violence when a group of Croatian contractors have their throats slit by ArmaLite-wielding maniacs. Offering echoes (or, perhaps, precursors) of current conflicts, the picture takes place at a time when radical Islamists were extending their influence.
The inhabitants of the monastery have, to this point, maintained good relations with their neighbours. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the head monk, demonstrates a close understanding of the Qu’ran. Brother Luc, played with well-seasoned eccentricity by the great Michael Lonsdale, calls upon his medical training to treat the citizen’s bunions and stomach aches...
Recalling the documentary Into Great Silence, the film pays close attention to ritual and routine. We see how the monks eat. We see how they farm. We listen to a sequence of hypnotic Gregorian chants. Inviting Caroline Champetier to move her camera with liturgical restraint, Beauvois allows the viewer complete emersion in this alien world....
It would be wrong to make too much of the juxtapositions between passive Christianity and active Islam. Of Gods and Men is so sure in its casting and so blessed in its performances that personalities continually register more strongly than ideologies. Lonsdale (hangdog, sardonic) and Wilson (sharp, unflinching) offer up particularly vivid character studies of wise – if not always prudent – men facing unmanageable challenges.
Of Gods and Men is out on general release today, and I hope to be able to see it sometime over the weekend. It promises to be a powerfully engaging cinematic experience.
The words of Fr Christian de Chergé OCSO as addressed to his future killer in a prophetic letter written in 1994 and opened after his martyrdom in May 1996: -
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a "GOD BLESS" for you, too, because in God's face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. Amen
UPDATE: 4/12/10: Having now watched the film at the Curzon Mayfair I can say that this is one of the best films I have seen...Please try and get to see it whilst it's still out.
[Picture note: 1. a still from Of Gods and Men; 2. The Cistercian monks of Our Lady of Atlas, Tibhirine]