Thursday, March 17, 2011

Of Gods and Men (orig. Des Hommes et des Dieux) [2010]

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert’s review

Of Gods and Men (directed by Xavier Beauvois and cowritten by Xavier Beauvois along with Etienne Comar) is a French movie (with English subtitles) about the true story of the Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Notre Dame d’Atlas in Algeria who were abducted and killed by Muslim extremists during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.

This is a fairly complex story and the film-makers do a magnificent job in presenting it.

What were these monks led by Fr. Christian (played by Lambert Wilson) doing in Algeria to begin with? Well their Cistercian brothers came to Algeria during 1800s during the French colonial era to setup a monastery. Like Benedictines of old, they simply prayed, worked the land, provided basic services to the people of the area and a village eventually grew-up below the monastery. This is exactly the same missionary approach that the Benedictines used throughout Europe over a millenium ago and the same basic approach that the French Jesuits (the Black Robes) used to evangelize in Canada. (I’ve often thought that the best missionaries were, in fact, the French).

What was the life of the Cistercian monks at their Abbey in the countryside of now independent Algeria with a still secular government but an overwhelmingly muslim population? Again, the movie beautifully presents the rhythm of life of the monks in their community.

Note to Hollywood: This movie ought to be required viewing for anyone wishing to write a credible screenplay about a Catholic rectory, religious community, or convent. The many scenes of the rhythm of the monks’ religious life are outstanding. And I myself have lived that rhythm at various communities as a religious priest. The various community meetings (meetings of the monks) were gentle and sober. Again, they were outstandingly portrayed. I’ve participated in such serious, sober deliberations with friars from my Order from across the world.

A further note to both "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics: Every last syllable chanted by the monks in this movie was in modern French rather than in Latin. There are certainly many reasons why the Second Vatican Council has played out in the way that it has in the United States and throughout much of the English speaking world – and for that matter, why a Catholic (Servite) priest like myself would have taken on a project like this of reviewing / dialoguing with Hollywood’s films -- but once one gets out of the United States (and much of the English speaking world) one finds that the Second Vatican Council has been applied in all kinds of ways and yes, we can learn from others as to how to better apply the Faith at home. Chanting may not be for everyone, but obviously neither are guitar Masses (and I actually like the Guitar Masses more than Chant but can live with both for the sake of the whole). We’re Catholic (that is, belonging to a Church which is big enough to be universal, that is, for all), why not "mix things up" occasionally for the benefit of all?

Is the movie a propaganda piece? If it is, I’d be hard pressed to see on behalf of whom. The French don’t look good and are universally blamed for starting the whole mess in Algeria as a result of their handling of the colonial era. The current secular Algerian regime is portrayed as being fundamentally and perhaps irredeemably corrupt. The Muslim extremists are portrayed as violent but also as having been victimized. Only the monks and the villagers below are portrayed in a reasonably positive way but only after a thorough examination by the movie of why the heck they were there in the first place. After all, Algeria was a Moslem country before the French arrived.

Still a case can certainly be made for a group of people who buy some land, build a community, live in peace, take care of their needs and even some of the needs of their neighbors. Why not just leave them in peace? Be it in Algeria, France, the United States or Tibet or Saudi Arabia.

Of Gods and Men offers a great message, well presented and well acted, leaving one with much to think about.

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1 comment:

  1. Father, good to see your 3.5 stars on Of Gods and Men. After watching recent political machinations and seeing the U.S. Church re-fight the birth control wars after a 50-year cease fire, I've almost forgotten how committed Christians are called to behave.

    I was half-way through this film before I remembered that I was watching actors. I found myself following the Liturgy and feeling as if I were at worship. These monks' fears were real, and I experienced those feelings vicariously.

    I feel indebted to the actors and especially to director Xavier Beauvois who struck the right tone from the first scene to the last. The selfless Christian ethic was best demonstrated by the great Michael Lonsdale as physician Brother Luc who was unforgettable. Sorry to say this film will probably remain in the dust bin of film history. Few U.S. movie-goers will have the patience to sit through a subtitled film, even though it was easy to read. Then of course there was not enough gore for action-seekers. I feel terrible for the people who will miss this wonderful production.