For two years, I attended a Christian high school, and every Monday all the students convened in the auditorium for chapel. My memories of the actual sermons have grown dim, but I distinctly remember the banner hanging to the side of the stage, which was titled Extreme Commitment, the theme for the year. It depicted two disembodied hands surrounding a heart, and at the bottom was a small portion of a quote from Romans 12:1: Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. In those days, my thoughts ran no deeper than wanting to leave the auditorium, for I was a restless teenager, and chapel bored me out of my skull. I wasn’t the only one. Many around me could be seen trying to stifle their yawns, and their heavy eyelids said volumes: If I got an extra hour of sleep, God would still know I love Him.
Looking back, I marvel at the weight of the Romans quote. Offering one’s body as a living sacrifice is indeed extreme commitment, and I would wager the students and faculty responsible for the banner have never been in that kind of position. They were, by and large, suburbanites used to the comforts of daily living – food at the supermarket, running water, showers, toilets, toothbrushes, and book stores with Bibles readily available. I don’t doubt that they were and still are people of faith. It’s just that, under the circumstances, the Romans passage wouldn’t adequately apply to them. It would apply to those who maintain their faith while intentionally putting themselves in harm’s way. Sometimes, they’re called martyrs. Most of the time, they’re not called anything; they’re people who were killed or maimed simply because they lived their lives as they normally would.
Of Gods and Men tells the true story of such people. In 1996, seven French Trappist monks living in an Algerian monastery were captured and eventually beheaded. They could have escaped this fate, but they decided to stay put, because in the end, they truly believed they were called by God to help the sick and hungry. The film is astonishing in that never quite expresses a viewpoint; it instead plays off of what individual audience members personally believe. If you side with the monks, the film will work – it depicts honest, peaceful men who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. If you don’t side with the monks, the film still works – they’re good men, and yet there’s no clear explanation for why they had to serve in that particular monastery in that particular country. They are, perhaps, committing the sin of pride without really knowing it.
The circumstances of their deaths remain a mystery to this day. Although the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) claimed responsibility, a retired French military attaché asserted that the monks were accidental casualties of the Algerian army in a failed rescue attempt. What the film makes abundantly clear is that the monks lived peacefully – and, most importantly, non-dogmatically – within the largely Muslim community. They planted crops, attended social events, sold their own honey, and even provided medical care. The real threats were Islamic rebel groups, who engaged the Algerian government in a civil war. The threat comes ever closer when innocent Croatian workers have their throats slit. In one of the film’s best scene, terrorists break into the monastery to steal medical supplies. They also demand the doctor, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), treat one of their injured followers. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) calmly engages the terrorist leader – by quoting a passage from the Koran.
Christian and Luc are the only two characters with discernable personalities. The former is determined and steadfast; he refuses military protection, and he refuses the Algerian government’s request that they leave, which may have more to do with lingering bitterness over the French occupation than with their own safety. The latter is equally resolute, but he’s also old and physically exhausted – so many sick people, so few resources. The other monks are background players, although one of them is vital to a scene of amazing humanity; in the midst of the turmoil, he begins to question both his presence in the monastery and his faith, which required him to leave behind his family and friends.
This movie takes faith more seriously than any I can think of. Intertwined with depictions of political strife and everyday banality are numerous scenes of chanting, praying, and worshipping. None of it feels contrived or dramatized. There’s a serene yet rhythmic pattern unfolding before our very eyes; in its visual and aural monotony, we come to understand just how strongly they believe. We also come to understand that the goal isn’t to prosthelytize or convert, but to love thy neighbor, regardless of faith. This is perhaps a bit too idealistic in a land ravaged by civil war, but for those Trappist monks, let it not be said that they didn’t live by the example set in the Book of Romans. Of Gods and Men is an engrossing and solemn masterpiece, and is definitely one of the year’s best films.