Of Gods and Men a Stirring Profession of Faith
- Monday, March 21, 2011
Release Date: February 25, 2011 (limited); March 18, 2011 (wider)
Rating: PG-13 (for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language - originally rated R)
Genre: Drama, History
Run Time: 122 min.
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Actors: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale and Olivier Rabourdin
Do you have the courage of your convictions? What’s the difference between obedience to a calling and sheer pig-headedness? Where do you draw the line between standing up for what you believe and rushing headlong toward martyrdom?
For a small band of French Trappist monks in 1990s Algeria, those questions are not academic. With war breaking out around them, the men have to decide whether to stay or flee, a question that takes up most of this movie. In the end, did they make the right decision? It’s up to the viewer to decide.
The film opens with Psalm 82:6-7: "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes." So, not a lot of doubt about what’s in store, which only heightens the film’s heavy sense of impending doom.
The monks live just outside a small, shabby village. The locals are Muslims who live peacefully with their Catholic neighbors from the monastery up the hill. The monks operate a small medical clinic, offering free medical care and shoes to the impoverished villagers. The townspeople respond by inviting the Frenchmen to local celebrations and accepting them as (basically) their own.
The leader of this band of brothers is Brother Christian, played by Lambert Wilson (Sahara). He’s a strong man, firm in his faith, and convinced he’s doing the right thing ... most of the time. Christian is not your average minister; he studies the Koran and preaches a kinship with his Muslim brothers that may have evangelical viewers squirming in their seats.
Michael Lonsdale (Goya's Ghosts) is wonderfully crusty as Brother Luc, the elderly, asthmatic, sharp-tongued doctor of the group. Luc has seen it all, from Nazis to more modern terrorists, and death doesn’t frighten him. “I’m a free man,” he says, and truly he does seem to have reached a state of grace where he’s ready to accept whatever life throws at him.
Other monks are less sanguine about their prospects. When a group of Taliban-esque rebels shows up at the door, armed to the teeth, a couple of the monks hide in the cellar. We feel their conflicted spirits as the men confront the all-too-real possibility they may pay the ultimate price. “As a kid I wanted to be a missionary,” one confesses to Christian. “Dying for my faith shouldn’t keep me up nights.”
One of the most striking things about this film is how curiously silent it is. There’s no “movie music” and so little dialogue it almost doesn’t matter that it’s in French (with English subtitles). It’s a marvelous technique, allowing the audience to fall into the rhythm of ritual that fills the men’s days. Once your ears adjust to the sound of monks shuffling across worn stone floors, a dog barking in the distance, dishes being washed, and the like, the sudden, sharp outbursts of war are all the more shocking.
One thing that does frequently break the silence is singing. Oh, that singing ... simple, unforced, and worshipful, it alone is worth the price of a movie ticket. The actors did their own singing and they hit all the right notes with their unpolished but sincere sound. One of the most memorable—and stirring—moments in the movie is when a service is interrupted by the menacing sound of an enemy helicopter circling overhead. Will they open fire on the chapel below? No one knows. The monks respond with a song. Standing with arms around each others’ shoulders, singing their hearts out to the only One who can truly deliver them, they are the picture of bravery and conviction. It’s an image that lasts long after the credits roll.
Winner of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix (the festival's second most prestigious award) Of Gods and Men is based on a true story, parts of which are still clouded in mystery. One thing is clear, though, enough that it’s printed on the movie poster: “In the face of terror, their greatest weapon was faith.” Indeed, it always is.
- Drugs/Alcohol: One of the monks brings out bottles of wine for the group at a “last supper-like” dinner.
- Language/Profanity: One f-bomb; one d-word (not in conjunction with God) and a few minor vulgarities read from a newspaper sports report.
- Sex/Nudity: None.
Violence: It’s a war film: People are threatened with guns, throats are cut, people die, and their bodies are displayed. Gunshot wounds and other injuries are shown.
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