Of Gods and Men
By Sr. Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.
Not long after midnight on March 27, 1996, seven Trappist monks were
kidnapped from the monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria.
After two months in captivity, they were beheaded; their bodies were
The monastery was begun in 1934 and located 272 miles south east of
the capital of Algiers. The murders of these priests counted among the
estimated 150,00-200,000 Algerian people who were killed during the
Algerian Civil War (1991-2001), among them nuns, priests, and at least
one bishop. The conflict ended with government victory over two Islamic
militaristic groups though armed incidents continue even today.
The film, by the prolific French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois, captures the monks’ simple life of work and prayer. Of Gods and Men won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. It reminded me of Philip Groning’s fascinating 2005 film Into Great Silenceabout life in the Grande Chartreuse, the main house of the Carthusian Order. Yet in many ways, Of Gods and Men is reminiscent of the style of the famous Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968), especially in his 1955 film Ordet.
Dreyer filmed the stark, unadorned fundamentalist Protestant lifestyle
of a farming family in a crisis of faith and the possibility of
The superior, Fr. Christian (Lambert Wilson), even helps people with
government paperwork. An elderly monk is a doctor and cares for the
people who come to him. The others farm the rough terrain and tend
beehives. The people, especially the women and children, genuinely care
for the monks. The community will have its crisis and their legacy of
faith and charity in utter simplicity is the miracle.
One of the most meaningful and memorable scenes in the film is when
the brothers take Christian to task for not including the community in
his decision that they will not leave the country or accept government
protection. They are also afraid because Christian refused to help
guerillas that wanted a doctor and medicine for their injured. For
anyone considering religious life, this community meeting is portrayed
authentically. It reflects the inner conflicts and tensions of power,
the fraternity and love that unites a religious community, and the
humility that is essential for wisdom to emerge.
It turns out that some do wish to leave, a few at a time, while
others want to stay. Ultimately, they all remain. As Christian explains
to Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), who is strongly inclined to depart:
They made their decision to stay when they made their vows to Christ.
Death, he implies, is a matter of when and with what interior
disposition we embrace it, not geography.
The chapel centers the film and the Divine Office provides a rhythmic
framework for the narrative. The soundtrack is haunting and the monk’s
chants are other-worldly yet plain.
A mystical scene toward the end, filled with all the grace and
transcendence that cinema can offer, signals that these monks, gathered
as a community, are prepared for whatever their love for God will ask of
them. It is a promise of a celestial banquet. Their meals are always
taken in silence, but here the monks share wine in blithe silence as
they listen and move to the dramatic theme of Swan Lake. This is their
anointing, joy and music conferring strength when fear hovers just below
This two-hour film is without violence but taunt with the expectation
of what is to come. The acting is fine, and we feel as if we know these
ordinary men who have followed a rare call to holiness is the desert of
monastic life in a hostile, far-away country.
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