“Of Gods and Men” is a French film, based on a true story, about a small group of monks in Algeria. It is a quiet, reflective film, more interested in exploring the ways people of faith make decisions than in following a certain dramatic arc. We see the monks go about their daily lives. They keep bees, they help the villagers with everything from bureaucratic paperwork to building retaining walls along terraced gardens, they run a medical clinic for the town. Also, they pray and sing, then eat meals together in silence. The film goes to great lengths to explore and portray the rhythms of monastic life. They are Trappists, but it is clear they have a good relationship full of trust with the Muslim townspeople they serve. So when a civil war threatens their existence and they are advised by government officials to go back to France, they face a conundrum. Stay and die with the people they serve, or go and live? They are conflicted amongst themselves, and they get conflicting advice from the people around them. It is not an easy decision to make.
This is a film made from a Christian perspective, for a Christian audience. And yet it feels like it inhabits and entirely different universe than films like “The Grace Card” and “Fireproof.” All the same, it is a film about living out one’s faith in the presence of fear and doubt, and if one doesn’t share the faith of the monks depicted– or at the very least, a certain respect for it– I can imagine that this would be a difficult film to watch and like. I’ve read negative reviews that call it slow and ponderous and overly self-important. Roger Ebert, who shares their Catholic background but not their adult conviction, disagrees with their decision because it doesn’t fit his own sense of ethical decision-making. I understand these objections; “Of Gods and Men” does not attempt to explain the monks, only to observe them. If you don’t understand their conviction and motivations before you see the film, you’re unlikely to feel any more enlightened at the end of it.
But if you do share their faith and convictions, even if only marginally, it is a powerfully challenging and deeply moving film. One thing I think most Christians, from any denomination, would agree with is the difference between knowing how things within your faith ought to work and actually trusting that they work that way. When the monks gather together to discuss the possibility of leaving the monastery, they are divided amongst themselves. The normal thing here, I think, would be to vote, and the dissenting party would just have to stomach their dissent. Instead, Christian, the head monk, postpones the decision and encourages them to pray, both alone and together, and seek God’s will. Consider the courage and faith of that decision on his part. The clock is ticking, and what are they chances that they’re acutally going going to change their minds? And yet…they do. When they come back together they are of one mind. The Spirit has spoken, quietly, to each of them. There are so many remarkable moments in “Of Gods and Men.” I should mention, as well, that it’s beautifully photographed in breathtaking settings. This film is a wonder to behold, and a joy to return to.
Generally, I know great films from good ones because they stay with me long after I’ve finished watching them– I turn over the scenes in my mind, relishing, reflecting, observing over and over again. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about “Of Gods and Men” since I watched it, and I don’t expect I’ll be able to for a long while.