I finally saw Of Gods and Men.
The film received a rave review from my favorite film critic, Steven Greydanus, so it’s been high on my list of must-see priorities.
I’m so glad I spent a Saturday afternoon and eight bucks on it.
It’s a quiet, powerful film, profound and inspiring in its picture of faithful Christians. It may not be as poetic as, say, Babette’s Feast, nor does it have a complex visual vocabulary like Ordet. It provides sufficient tours of the characters’ surroundings to convince us that this is, indeed, the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains, near Algiers. But the key scenes are all staged very simply, as if this might be adapted from a play.
It’s beautifully acted, filled with endearing yet understated performances.
It’s suspenseful and, at times, terrifying.
It’s not a great work of cinematography, but I would argue that it shouldn’t be; the modesty of its visual style suits the subject matter. This isn’t a Terrence Malick epic about natural revelation and the movement of the Holy Spirit through the grass. It’s a film about monks doing their simple daily tasks, and applying themselves to What Matters as death comes knocking on their doors.
But even though this is one of the finest examples of Christian faith to play on the big screen since Sophie Scholl, I fear that Of Gods and Men is doomed to remain as relatively unknown to Christian audiences as Sophie Scholl is. It’ll probably never earn the popularity in churches that films like Facing the Giants enjoy. Why?
Several reasons. Here are a few:
- Most American Christian moviegoers, like most Americans, want flashy, fast-paced entertainment, not art that moves at the speed of life, or art that quietly asks them to think things through. But this is a quiet film that asks you to pay attention. That is a strength, not a weakness. By inviting you to pay attention, it will become a part of you, an experience you’ll remember and discuss. Thus, it denies you many of movie conventions that have conditioned us to get comfortable and turn off our brains.The only music we hear in the film, with only a couple of exceptions, is the music made by nine Trappist monks in prayer. Many scenes are almost silent, as the monks go about their daily tasks wrestling with difficult questions about their responsibility to follow Christ.If I were looking for a way to make this film look appealing to young Christian moviegoers, the best thing I could come up with would be this: “Starring that guy who played The Merovingian in The Matrix movies!” (That is, after all, true.) But the sad fact of the matter is… this film just isn’t sexy enough to become a priority for most American moviegoers, and that includes American Christians.
- This is a film about nine Trappist monks. Most American Christian moviegoers aren’t very interested in monks or monasteries. Watching a film about monks or priests is like watching a film in which people speak a foreign language. And films set in unfamiliar settings require a curiosity about other peoples, traditions, and cultures. (How many people in your church went to see Into Great Silencea couple of years ago?)If this was a film about handsome young Christians on a football team, or a young Christian woman choosing to “save herself for marriage”, or a muscular American missionary in a pith helmet dodging the spears of angry natives, or a fireman learning lessons of faith while buildings burn, Christians would be much easily persuaded to see it.
- The people in this film do not speak English. Why is this likely to discourage people from seeing it? See Point #2.
- The film suggests that some Muslims might be good, friendly, peace-loving neighbors, and that Christians might even live in community with them.For many, that suggestion will make the world seem too complicated. It’s easier to be interested in a film that portrays Middle Easterners as extremists who want to kill us. That way the “teams” in the movie are clearly designated, and we know who to root for.Movies in which Christians enjoy the company of people with other beliefs make a lot of Christians uncomfortable. So just imagine how most Christians would feel if they ever realized what Jesus was up to when he narrated the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, he made a saintly hero out of a person from a class that his listeners intensely disliked. He showed how the good religious folk failed, and the person who revealed the kingdom of God came from a group of people that the audience considered suspicious.In most “Christian entertainment,” though, it’s always the good American Christians who save the day… in Jesus’ name, of course.Of Gods and Men does portray courageous Christians. Even better, it’s based on a true story. Nevertheless, the compassionate portrayal of Muslims and other Middle Eastern peoples is likely to unsettle a lot of viewers.
- Most American Christian moviegoers, like most American moviegoers in general, want a feel-good ending for the characters with whom they agree… that is to say, the Christian characters.If the film is going to suggest that faith is complicated, or that it leaves many questions on this side of the grave unanswered, well, where’s the fun in that?We want our movies to make us feel good about “what side we’re on,” and that usually translates into an appetite for films that show Christians achieving very worldly definitions of victory. (“I got my prayer answered!” “I won an Olympic medal!” “My team won a championship!” “My wife got pregnant!” “The person who didn’t believe in Jesus prayed the sinners’ prayer!”)Of Gods and Men does not lie to us about how following Jesus leads to happiness. It is a film about following Christ and carrying the cross. It affirms the line that Steve Taylor once sang so mournfully: “It’s harder to believe than not to.”
Okay, I’m a curmudgeon. I know. I’m exaggerating. A little. Maybe. The Christians who go to movies in your neighborhood, they’re probably smarter than these unfair generalizations I’ve just described. Right?
If so, here’s an invitation: Make me wrong. I’d like nothing better than to learn that I’m underestimating the church-going moviegoers of America. I’d love to hear that you took a bunch of your friends and neighbors to see Of Gods and Men, and then you discussed it afterward. (If it’s not playing in your town, put it in your Netflix queue and wait.)
Time will tell. In the next few years, if the title Of Gods and Men ends up getting as much attention in Christian media as, say A Walk to Remember or Fireproof or Facing the Giants, then there will be reason to rejoice, and I will remove my foot from my mouth.
Truth is, I think most American Christian moviegoers, like most moviegoers in general, tend to be more excited about entertainment that makes people like them look impressive; that advertises messages they endorse; that sends them out feeling affirmed about answers they already knew, instead of challenged by questions they’d never considered.
Seriously: I would like nothing better than to be very wrong about this.
Of Gods and Men is fantastic. I’m not calling for some kind of rally to make it a box office hit. But I am saying that if Christians really want to see more movies that give powerful, truthful pictures of the Gospel at work, they’re not likely to get many better examples of that than this film.
It’s the kind of film that’s as likely to humble and challenge its Christian viewers as it is anybody else. And isn’t that a good thing?
Meanwhile, while the film slowly disappears from American cinemas, remaining something like a secret… film-lovers around the world have been celebrating it like a major event. Read this, for example, from Film Comment:
In this year’s winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, director Xavier Beauvois recounts the harrowing true story of a brotherhood of French monks in the highlands of North Africa who find themselves threatened by Islamic extremists during the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. Starring a gifted ensemble cast led by the empathetic Lambert Wilson (as resident religious scholar Brother Christian), the film begins as a bucolic chronicle of these simple men of God and their gentle relationship with their Muslim neighbors, to whom they provide much-needed medical care and other services. When the insurgents arrive, they find themselves faced with an impossible decision: to flee, or to stand their ground and fulfill their spiritual mission. Magnificently photographed by cinematographer Caroline Champetier in compositions that suggest Renaissance paintings, Of Gods and Men is a poetic, austerely beautiful triumph.
I can only say, “Amen!”