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Of Gods and Men

John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service

Lambert Wilson and Jean-Marie Frin star in "Of Gods and Men."
A brilliant dramatization of real events, "Of Gods and Men" (Sony Pictures Classics) is a restrained religious masterpiece and a memorable viewing experience from which every adult—as well as many mature teens—can expect to profit.

The film recounts the fate of a small community of French Trappists living in Algeria during that nation's civil war in the 1990s.

Targeted by violent Muslim extremists—the Algerian conflict pitted militant Islamists against a secularly oriented military government—the monks must decide whether to continue their medical and social work for the vulnerable local population or abandon them by fleeing to safety.

From the first, their headstrong prior, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), is resolved to stay. He also refuses the military guard that civic officials offer to put in place to protect the monastery, regarding such a measure as out of keeping with his order's commitment to peace.

Brother Christian's confreres, however, forcefully point out to him that, with all their lives at stake, the decision on whether to remain must ultimately be a collective one. As each individual struggles with the issue, weighing his own welfare against his sense of commitment to his vocation and to those he serves, their varied personalities are subtly but strikingly profiled.

By contrast to the tightly wound Brother Christian, for example, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) emerges as an avuncular, unflappable character whose faith endows him with a courageous good humor that nothing, it seems, can disturb.

Using the tools of the monastic life itself, director Xavier Beauvois finds a path to the heart of the Gospel through simplicity, a compassionate sense of brotherhood and an atmosphere of prayer enriched by sacred music and potent silence. The result is a profound mediation on what Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer famously termed the cost of discipleship.

While thoroughly measured in its portrayal of Muslim characters—the monks are shown to be on good terms with their sympathetic neighbors, and even one of the area's militia leaders ultimately demonstrates his respect for other faiths—"Of Gods and Men" presents a timely and artistically adept testimony to the power of nonviolence in the face of anti-Christian fanaticism.

Viewers of faith will also welcome the lyrical, though not unrealistic, image of religious life presented here, conveyed most powerfully in the climactic scene of a shared meal that movingly evokes the Last Supper. Indeed, in addition to its success on so many other levels, "Of Gods and Men" could serve as a highly effective tool for the vocation directors of various religious orders.

If that seems ironic, given the life-threatening peril that forms the dark backdrop for this masterful piece of cinema, it's an irony—or, perhaps more accurately, a divine paradox—as old as the church itself.

The film, in French with subtitles, contains brief gory violence, some unsettling images and a single instance each of rough and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions: Andrew Dung-Lac was one of 117 people martyred in Vietnam between 1820 and 1862. Members of this group were beatified on four different occasions between 1900 and 1951. All were canonized by St. John Paul II. 
<p>Christianity came to Vietnam (then three separate kingdoms) through the Portuguese. Jesuits opened the first permanent mission at Da Nang in 1615. They ministered to Japanese Catholics who had been driven from Japan. </p><p>The king of one of the kingdoms banned all foreign missionaries and tried to make all Vietnamese deny their faith by trampling on a crucifix. Like the priest-holes in Ireland during English persecution, many hiding places were offered in homes of the faithful. </p><p>Severe persecutions were again launched three times in the 19th century. During the six decades after 1820, between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were killed or subjected to great hardship. Foreign missionaries martyred in the first wave included priests of the Paris Mission Society, and Spanish Dominican priests and tertiaries. </p><p>Persecution broke out again in 1847 when the emperor suspected foreign missionaries and Vietnamese Christians of sympathizing with a rebellion led by of one of his sons. </p><p>The last of the martyrs were 17 laypersons, one of them a 9-year-old, executed in 1862. That year a treaty with France guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics, but it did not stop all persecution. </p><p>By 1954 there were over a million and a half Catholics—about seven percent of the population—in the north. Buddhists represented about 60 percent. Persistent persecution forced some 670,000 Catholics to abandon lands, homes and possessions and flee to the south. In 1964, there were still 833,000 Catholics in the north, but many were in prison. In the south, Catholics were enjoying the first decade of religious freedom in centuries, their numbers swelled by refugees. </p><p>During the Vietnamese war, Catholics again suffered in the north, and again moved to the south in great numbers. Now the whole country is under Communist rule.</p> American Catholic Blog I discovered that my sins had created a spiritual racket that drowned out the gentle whispers of God to my soul; God had never actually abandoned me, but I needed repentance and sacramental grace to reawaken all that was good and beautiful in me.

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