At Seattle’s Harvard Exit theatre last March, I witnessed a rare and wonderful thing on the big screen—a thoughtful portrayal of devout Christians putting their faith into practice.
I was caught off guard. I’ve developed a serious allergy to “Christian movies.” They usually turn out to be big-screen sermons with very little storytelling imagination and hardly a trace of poetry or visual composition. Moreover, they’re often misguided fairy tales that imply a relationship with Jesus will lead to answered prayers, wishes fulfilled, and oodles of happiness. In my experience, the closer I draw to Christ, the more challenging and often painful life becomes.
But this particular movie wasn’t another church-funded production. To my knowledge, this film wasn’t even marketed to Christian audiences.
Of Gods and Men is a rare wonder—a film about faith made by artists, not evangelists. It takes Christian faith very seriously, and yet it is crafted with such impressive artistry that it has won international honours: the Grand Prize and the Ecumenical Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival; the Best Film honour at France’s César awards; the Best Foreign Language Film honours from the London Critics Circle and from America’s National Board of Review—just to name a few. (And lo . . . at this writing, it has a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes!)
So why is it that, almost two years since its debut and a full year after its American release date, the film seems to have gone almost unnoticed in the Christian circles, where enthusiasm for “Christian movies” is so intense? Why hasn’t it become the new standard for “sacred cinema,” inspiring church-basement screenings across the country? Why hasn’t it caught on with mainstream evangelicals like Courageous,Fireproof, and Facing the Giants?
There are, I suspect, quite a few reasons for this. …
Here are some excellent reviews that I recommend you consider:
Michael Sicisnki (The Academic Hack): “The brothers lived in harmony with their Muslim community; they provided free health care, sold honey at the local market and were often honored guests and family celebrations. Beauvois presents a picture of two faiths living side by side in total mutual respect. However, this isn’t a rosy, pie-in-the-sky ecumenical vision. What he demonstrates is that the community shares a mutual distrust of their government, the army, the Muslim extremists, and the French colonizers of the past. That is, their bond has been sealed not through ideology but through laboring side by side, as well as each group studying the tenets of the others’ faith. That is, Beauvois shows that true religious belief requires effort, not ignorant sloganeering. And so, when the Islamist fundamentalists finally arrive in the end, Of Gods and Men has already built a nearly airtight argument that, regardless of what these men with guns might believe, they do not represent Islam. They are not men of God. Particularly when writing for Cargo, I try not to be USA-centric, but it is difficult to watch a film like Beauvois’s and clear my mind of the fact that, back home, bigots are burning Korans in order to protest the construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, which right-wing extremists have dubbed ‘the ground zero mosque.’ I hope that everyone in the U.S. has the chance to see this film.”
Steven Greydanus, Decent Films: “Xavier Beauvois’ sublime Of Gods and Men is that almost unheard-of film that you do not judge — it judges you. To one degree or another it defies every attempt to put it in a box, to reduce its challenge to a political or pious ideological stance to be affirmed or critiqued. Whoever you are, whatever you bring to it, it will not tell you exactly what you want to hear, unless that is all you are willing or able to hear. Seldom have I read so many reviews justly genuflecting to a film amid such inability to explain why, or with such unconvincing rationalizations for critical discomfort. … Of Gods and Men is a remarkably uncompromising film: uncompromising in its depiction of the challenge of Christianity, of the sharp divisions within Islam between the peaceful villagers and the bloodthirsty insurgents. It is profoundly engaged in political realities, yet it transcends politics. It is thoughtful, yet many of its best scenes are dialogue-free, from the routines of manual labor to the luminous emotional climax.”
Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running: “When a monk invokes the metaphor of birds perched on a branch with respect to their situation, a woman of the village corrects that monks: You are not the birds on the branch, she says to him; you are the branch. The film is finally about how these men come to gradually accept that fact. There’s no road-to-Damascus blinding light moment to be had here. Instead, there is a gradual solidifying, a taking-root, accompanied by incidental pleasures, sorrows, and some rather typically French ironies, as when Lonsdale’s Luc recalls Pascal’s observation that evil is never more cheerfully accomplished as when it’s done in the name of religious conviction. The generosity with which Beauvois and his wonderful cast share the lives of these men with the viewer makes the losses that end the film that much harder to bear. Be prepared to be shaken.”