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Of Gods and Men

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 never found.

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 miracles.

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 the surface.

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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Charles de Foucauld: Born into an aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France, Charles was orphaned at the age of six, raised by his devout grandfather, rejected the Catholic faith as a teenager and joined the French army. Inheriting a great deal of money from his grandfather, Charles went to Algeria with his regiment, but not without his mistress, Mimi. <br /><br />When he declined to give her up, he was dismissed from the army. Still in Algeria when he left Mimi, Charles reenlisted in the army. Refused permission to make a scientific exploration of nearby Morocco, he resigned from the service. With the help of a Jewish rabbi, Charles disguised himself as a Jew and in 1883 began a one-year exploration that he recorded in a book that was well received. <br /><br />Inspired by the Jews and Muslims whom he met, Charles resumed the practice of his Catholic faith when he returned to France in 1886. He joined a Trappist monastery in Ardeche, France, and later transferred to one in Akbes, Syria. Leaving the monastery in 1897, Charles worked as gardener and sacristan for the Poor Clare nuns in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. In 1901 he returned to France and was ordained a priest. <br /><br />Later that year Charles journeyed to Beni-Abbes, Morocco, intending to found a monastic religious community in North Africa that offered hospitality to Christians, Muslims, Jews, or people with no religion. He lived a peaceful, hidden life but attracted no companions. <br /><br />A former army comrade invited him to live among the Tuareg people in Algeria. Charles learned their language enough to write a Tuareg-French and French-Tuareg dictionary, and to translate the Gospels into Tuareg. In 1905 he came to Tamanrasset, where he lived the rest of his life. A two-volume collection of Charles' Tuareg poetry was published after his death. <br /><br />In early 1909 he visited France and established an association of laypeople who pledged to live by the Gospels. His return to Tamanrasset was welcomed by the Tuareg. In 1915 Charles wrote to Louis Massignon: “The love of God, the love for one’s neighbor…All religion is found there…How to get to that point? Not in a day since it is perfection itself: it is the goal we must always aim for, which we must unceasingly try to reach and that we will only attain in heaven.”   <br /><br />The outbreak of World War I led to attacks on the French in Algeria. Seized in a raid by another tribe, Charles and two French soldiers coming to visit him were shot to death on December 1, 1916. <br />Five religious congregations, associations, and spiritual institutes (Little Brothers of Jesus, Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Little Sisters of Jesus, Little Brothers of the Gospel and Little Sisters of the Gospel) draw inspiration from the peaceful, largely hidden, yet hospitable life that characterized Charles. He was beatified on November 13, 2005. American Catholic Blog You know, O my God, I have never desired anything but to love you, and I am ambitious for no other glory.

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