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Cinema in Focus: ‘Of Gods and Men’ Succeeds at the Seemingly Impossible

Powerful film depicts a true event in which Christian monks serve God in the face of great danger

4 Stars — Profound

The award-winning film Of Gods and Men (“Des Hommes et des Dieux”) by Xavier Beauvois is a masterpiece of cinema.

Weaving visual juxtapositions with a novel soundtrack, the film presents a moving tale of courage and faith. Based on a true incident in 1996, the story focuses on a Christian monastery in Tibherine, Algeria, during the civil unrest in that Muslim nation. Nominated as Best Foreign Film, the subtitled French film explores the lives of these monks who remained long after the French colonization had ceased.

Written by Etienne Comar, the depth of the story and its authentic Christian faith matches the cinematic style. Using only natural sounds to tell the story, we hear the sounds of nature, the conversations of villagers and the belching of machines all interspersed with the worship chants of the Christian brothers. The effect is the creation of a real moment in real time in which life and worship intersect. And that is the heart of the story.

After years of being a witness for Christ in this Muslim nation, living the rhythms of monastic worship and work, caring for and selflessly serving their community, the outside world suddenly intersects with their inner peace. Muslim terrorists are rebelling against their own government and murderous attacks against foreign workers are alarming. This increasing violence is contrasted with the quite peace of the monastery as the brothers worship the Prince of Peace.

Having taken vows of poverty and celibacy, the monks are led by Christian (Lambert Wilson). A deeply sensitive man of unshakable convictions, Christian is unwilling to allow the army to protect the monastery since their commitment to nonviolence extends to their not wanting anyone hurt or killed on their behalf.

Also appropriately named is Dr. Luc (Michael Lonsdale), who has served the people of the village for 60 years and is now an old and wise physician. Both are presented in authentic ways showing all the complexities of a faithful life. The other members of the small group of believers are also genuine and normal in their fears and their faith. With no handsome heroes or ethereal examples, there is only undeniable strength and admirable courage.

As the situation becomes increasingly dangerous and their own lives threatened, the film weaves together the message of Christ coming at Christmas as a vulnerable infant who life was also in danger by a violent world. This joining of faith and life is further shown by the sacramental life and sacred hymns of their worship as the outside drama directly resembles their expressions of worship, as their ancient hymns and inspired scriptures describe a world that is now outside their windows.

It is difficult to portray the inward life of faith in a film. In fact, it’s difficult to even express that inner life to another without in some way diluting or confusing it. But Of Gods and Men is a film that tries the impossible and succeeds. For those who have the eyes and ears to hear, it is a visual and auditory communion with all those who live the incarnated life.

Discussion:

» The courage the monks demonstrated in staying in their place of service at their own physical peril, demonstrates the fact that they had already given their lives to their Lord Jesus Christ. If you had been in their situation, would you have stayed or gone? Why?

» The gentle rhythms of monastic life begin with morning prayers and then move through the “hours” with specific prayers as representations of moving through the seasons of a person’s life from birth to death. Each day is then a small depiction of a whole lifetime. How do you experience the movement of your own life “from birth to death” in both the celebration of life and the preparation for death?

» The realization that Christmas is the celebration of “God becoming man” and being born in vulnerable infancy, is compared within the film to the monks incarnating this same vulnerability and courageous love for their world. If you were to describe your own purpose in life how would it contrast or compare with this life of vulnerable love?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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