Of Gods and Men: Of Martyrs for Life

"Of Gods and Men" — the monks of Tibhirine walk in the snow after being kidnapped by insurgents.

Of Gods and Men, the award-winning French film about Cistercian monks who lived at the Monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria and who were killed in 1996 during the Algerian civil war, will begin showing in Atlanta next Friday, April 1. I had the privilege to attend an advance screening sponsored by Sony Pictures today. The film has already been screening in New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities, so you can fairly easily find reviews of it online. And for the most part, it’s getting plenty of praise. Metacritic rates the film at 86% and Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 92%. Not bad for a film dealing with questions of faith! Meanwhile, over at the Huffington Post, Jesuit author James Martin calls Of Gods and Men the best movie on faith I’ve ever seen.” That may seem hyperbolic, but I have to admit, I’m not having any luck thinking of a better one.

The film moves slowly, and is for the most part quiet and contemplative; at times it felt like I was watching the Cistercian answer to Into Great Silence, the 2005 German documentary about Carthusian monks. The film repeatedly takes us back to the liturgy (sung beautifully in French), just as the normal day in the life of a monk repeatedly returns to the prayer of the community; as the movie progresses, this continual returning to the liturgy functions almost like a refrain to the poetic unfolding of the film’s story. One thing that really makes this movie shine is how authentic it is in its portrayal of the humanity of the monks, warts and all. Several of them are irascible and downright ornery, at one point one utters an extremely not-nice word. His companion mutters “he’s tired,” almost as if to make an excuse to the audience. People who have romanticized notions about monks never wearing anything other than their habits and never ever leaving the cloister will find a much more realistic portrayal of the down-to-earth men who have chosen to live alongside, and truly with, the simple but loving villagers who depend on them for medical care and friendship. Their life as a community of monks, in all its simplicity, humility, and sheer ordinariness, is presented in a beautiful, understated, matter-of-fact way — which is why I think the film succeeds not only as great cinema but as a great testament to faith.

But of course, it’s a foreboding film, for the way it ends is pretty obvious even to those who may not know the true story upon which it is based. All but two of the monks are kidnapped and killed. But are they martyrs? They died for political more than religious reasons, pawns in a contentious civil war with social and economic as much as religious dimensions. The movie does a fine job of pointing out how the monks, especially their prior, Christian, are so accepting of Islam — and how the Muslim villagers return the respect and acceptance to the Trappists. Even one particularly tense encounter with insurgents on a Christmas eve is resolved in favor of interfaith understanding, to the point that the leader of the fighters apologizes to Brother Christian for disturbing them on their holy night!

Well, of course the monks of Tibhirine are martyrs — but (and I believe the movie does a stellar job at communicating this message) their martyrdom arises not from how they died, but from how they lived. The word martyr simply means “witness,” after all — there’s no inherent necessity that a martyr is someone whose blood is shed, even though historically the Christian understanding of a martyr involves someone who is killed for their faith in Christ. But the monks of Tibhirine make choices in their lives because of their faith, and in the end those choices place them in harm’s way. But that’s not what really matters. What matters is that they loved their neighbors. What matters is that they refused to back down from their principles that the monastery was a place of peace, where anyone — of any political persuasion — was welcome, so long as that person respected the peace of the place. What matters is that they knew that to abandon the monastery, and their neighbors, was in a very real way a worse “death” than remaining faithful to their mission in Algeria — even though they knew the odds were stacked against their own safety.

The prior, Christian, at one point notes that staying in the midst of that war-torn region was absurd — “as absurd as becoming a monk,” he wryly notes. And this is the movie’s powerful moral. Making a choice to give our lives to God is what ultimately matters, at least to people of faith. And if we make that choice, then all other choices arise from, and can only be understood in terms of, the logic of that foundational commitment. The monks gave themselves to Christ, and they found Christ in their neighbors — even in a small village of impoverished people whose ethnicity, nationality, and religion differ from their own. But that doesn’t matter; loving their neighbors does.

I believe the story of these Algerian Trappists and their community is filled with hope for a future where Christians and Muslims can learn to live peacefully together, even though this particular tale ended tragically (read John Kiser’s wonderful book The Monks of Tibhirine for more insight into this). I had hoped that the movie would make a more forceful argument about recognizing the difference between ordinary people of faith (whether Christian or Muslim) and those who use their faith as an ideological weapon (which, alas, can be seen within both faiths). The point is made, just not as clearly as I would have hoped. But this is a movie that is anchored in understatement, so perhaps I should not harp on this for too long. It could have easily been ruined by politically-correct grandstanding, and thankfully it never comes close to that.

A couple of Muslim friends of mine in Oregon recently previewed the film and, along with two Catholic viewers (one of whom is a Trappist), offered their own response to the film, particularly in terms of how it addresses the question of relations between Christians and Muslims. They raise some good cautionary points, notably in how the film doesn’t tell enough of the back story, that the conflict in Algeria in the 1990s could only be understood in light of the sorry legacy of French colonialism. They all seem rather pessimistic in the film’s promise for fostering better relations between members of the two faiths. That makes me sad. Maybe because I’ve read Kiser’s book, I saw more hope in the film; Kiser does such a good job in explaining the back story that I went in to the film with at least a sense of the complex historical forces at work. So that would be my recommendation: see this film, but read the book, too. And pray, following the inspiring words of Brother Christian, that Christians may learn to see Muslims the way God sees Muslims (and vice versa). If we could all pray for this, and work to make it real, then I think we could say that the Cistercian brothers of Tibhirine did not die in vain.

  • paul quinlan

    having read the book i hope the movie comes to sf bay area soon. it is an excellent book and should be a guide to how us christians should be around muslims and most importantly how we can learn from them.


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