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DVD REVIEW: 'Gods and Men' depicts cost of living out faith Bill Fentum, Aug 25, 2011
By Bill Fentum Associate Editor
Of Gods and Men Rated PG-13 for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language
It’s precisely because most religious films make a spectacle of faith that the French docudrama Of Gods and Men (newly released to DVD and Blu-ray) catches us so off-guard.
The main characters—French Trappist monks at a small monastery in Algeria—spend each day fulfilling their call in silence, punctuated by daily worship, chanting and prayer.
The nine men also carry out the Rule of St. Benedict to “live by the work of their hands,” harvesting crops and honey to sell at market. And they’re at peace with their neighbors, Muslim villagers who work alongside the monks and invite them to local gatherings.
But a threat exists in this true story, set in the mid-1990s when civil war devastated Algeria. Islamic extremists are at war with the secular government, and set on purging the former colonial state of perceived foreign influences.
The first victims are Croatian workers, slaughtered only a few miles away from the monastery.
Then on Christmas Eve 1994, a team of rebels briefly storms the monastery—though the incident ends calmly, with the leader apologizing to the monks’ leader Dom Christian (Lambert Wilson) for disrupting their observance of the birth of the Prince of Peace.
Now the pressing dilemma: Will the monks remain in the village? Or will they return to France, or to a safer monastery elsewhere in Africa? How long can they wait to choose?
Christian is determined to stay despite the risk, as is Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), who though now physically frail, has spent decades caring for visitors to the monastery’s free clinic.
Others, however, consider a plan of leaving over a period of months, one by one, to avoid public suspicion. One of these is the youngest of the men, Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), who prays in solitude for guidance and—when he doesn’t sense an answer—feels abandoned by God and starts to doubt his own faith.
“Why be martyrs?” he asks Christian in private. “For God? To be heroes? To prove we’re the best?”
“No,” Christian tries to assure him. “If we’re to be martyrs, it will be out of love, out of fidelity. Our mission here is to be brothers to all.” Their Muslim friends state it no less eloquently. They know the monks’ interaction with the community has been a blessing for many years and possibly a source of protection against outside chaos.
Late in the film, one monk suggests a metaphor, comparing his brotherhood to birds perched on a branch—unsure if they’ll remain or fly away.
“No, we’re the birds, you’re the branch,” says one villager. “If you leave, we’ll lose our footing.”
And so the conflict plays out until, at last, each individual has reached his decision. God’s hand in the process remains mysterious even to them; but what we can know is beautifully summarized in a prayer from Dom Christian’s own writings, in which he expresses love even for those who might threaten or take his life.
“I could never desire such a death. . . .,” he writes. “But [if it comes] I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s.
“. . . And you, too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. . . . May we meet again, happy thieves in paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.”
Whether or not one knows the outcome before watching Of Gods and Men, the film overcomes language barriers (the dialogue is in French and Arabic, with English subtitles) to serve as a stirring examination of belief, courage and the cost of discipleship.