Review by John D. O'Brien, S.J.
Director: Xavier Beauvois, 122 min., France, 2010.
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin
Based on the true story of the eight Trappist monks of the Monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, who in 1996 found themselves caught in the midst of the Algerian Civil War. The monks live a quiet life of work and prayer and friendship with the Muslim villagers of Tibhirine. Threatened by terrorist factions, they are urged to flee the country. This triggers an excruciating discernment: to leave or to stay with the people they have come to know and love.
Nominated for many awards, and winning three at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, including the Grand Prize of the Jury.
It is rare to see a religious film of such power as Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men. It is not a film about the monks’ deaths, which were hailed as martyrdoms, but rather about how they lived and why they were willing to die. The monks were more “martyrs of charity” than martyrs due to hatred of the faith. The film explores the why this was the case.
In the so-called “Third Week” of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, having made the decision to reform one’s life, and the choice to follow the Lord in previous “weeks”, the retreatant’s decision is now tested. Are we willing to be remain with the Lord, even to his ignoble end? Will we follow him, through his passion, to the very foot of the cross? This is the time of ratification of our prior decision. In another sense, it’s a period of learning to see and love the Lord in a whole new light, as the suffering servant, the Lamb of God.
Of all the moments of Christ’s passion in which Of Gods and of Men could be placed, it is above all the Garden of Gethsemane. The monks are experiencing the anguish of an uncertain decision to be made, of the anticipation of suffering, of the demands of love, and of the pathos that this chalice contains. “Pathos” is should be said, normally means a situation in which one both desires and does not desire something and at the same time. We are asked to journey with the monks in their anguish, “keeping watch” with them for just two hours of our time, but over many days of their time. The film is a contemplative experience, one suffused with the power of human presence. Just as the monks comfort one another in fraternal solidarity, so can we comfort Christ in his agony by our decision to remain with him. Presence is a primary language of love. Those who have learned it know that many words are not needed. Loneliness is one of the greatest afflictions of our age, a major poverty in the West. The remedy is to present ourselves attentively – the gift of our presence and our time. In this way we discover the hidden face of Christ in the other.
There are other themes in this film; it is also a reflection on the nature of community, authority, mission, freedom and obedience. But its greatest strength is its treatment, on a more fundamental level, of this: what does it mean to love my neighbour? Everybody in the monastery agrees that they are not called to pursue martyrdom per se. They want to respect the basic human vocation to keep and preserve one’s life. But in the face of the possibility of death, how is that fundamental law altered by Christ’s teaching that “greater love hath no man than to lays down his life for his friends”. But they are not saving lives here. What reason is there to remain at such a cost?
Film critic Roger Ebert did not like the monks’ decision, feeling that their martyrdom was a form of selfishness, when they still had years and talents to dispense to the world. This utilitarian approach to human love and service risking ignoring the very nature of love – its freedom to give itself – which is also the foundation of the film’s own dramatic tension. The Trappists chose to stay with the people among whom they live in the here and now, their immediate flesh and blood friends, the people they knew in the present time. Love is the hermeneutic key to this drama, but a messy, difficult love that is not and cannot be exercised in the abstract. We learn, in a variety of scenes, that the monks are committed to the local people. This relationship was the very reason for which they lived, and Ebert misses the point, both theologically, of course, but also, I think, aesthetically. Their decision, pretty much known to the viewer in advance, is the reason we find the film beautiful.
If the “Third Week” is to meditate on the passion of Christ, this seems an odd place to consider beauty. But I think it’s the best place. For if we come to love that which is viscerally unattractive (the street person, the sick or disfigured), it’s because we have nonetheless perceived something beautiful in them. Let’s examine beauty for a moment – even the beauty of tragedy or of suffering. Aquinas described beauty simply as “id quod visum placet” (that which pleases when seen), and this film pleases us because it represents a mystery well. It conveys resplendently the mystery of God’s interaction with human freedom – which is the essence of all good drama. The film is beautiful because it has beauty’s classic qualities: integrity, proportion and clarity, but it also goes beyond them.
The film’s beauty is more than just its visual presentation, although it includes that. There is an integrity, meaning wholeness, because there is a completeness to its illustration of the dynamic of love. There is proportionality, meaning right ratio between elements, a balance of the film’s constitutive parts. Although the dramatic tension is strong, the visuals and editing are serene, in a way befitting a story whose theme is the mystery of self-donation. There is little music beyond the psalm chants of the monks themselves, although there is a crescendo with the inclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the celebrated “Last Supper” scene. The liturgical chants in the chapel scenes are fittingly solemn auditory expressions of the paschal mystery unfolding in the human story; the chants’ elegance and simplicity – sung by the actors themselves – evoke the inter-dwelling of the mundane and the sublime, where the human and divine meet in the recesses of the heart. But above all it’s the long stretches of silence that are the most eloquent, given the sobriety and sacredness of the theme. There is also a pleasing ratio between scenes which parallel episodes from the life of Christ, which I will leave to the viewer to identify. Finally, there is also a pleasing proportion between exterior views of bright landscapes and natural scenery with the dim interior scenes of the monastery, an interplay of visual richness and austerity. This brings to mind the relationship between interiority and exteriority in liturgical experience, and contributes to the film’s abiding sense of reverence.
The third quality, clarity, could be said to shine from the film’s understatement or restraint. It allows characters to make statements that illumine the story without sounding moralizing or preachy. The tension of the drama, as well as the radicality of their own vocation as monks, gives them the credibility to make spiritual insights without didacticism. Brother Luc declares philosophically to his superior, “I’m not scared of death. I am a free man”. Br. Christian’s voice-over of the letter he wrote to his family in Europe is the summit of this kind of radiant speaking. There is a equilibrium between their actual lives and their spiritual statements, their walk and their talk, which permits the film to shine forth in spiritual luminosity. In the final analysis, it is the brightness of the true martyr – the credibility of authentic Christian witness.
All this might help us understand why this film is beautiful. But the final word must be on the reason we might find the “unattractive” beautiful. God entered the world, the philosophers tell us, sub specie contraria (in contrary appearance), in weakness and death, thereby elevating these negatives to the Positive, redeeming what was formerly worthless. Today, then, we can see beauty in all things, even the apparently “ugly”. This is why the Christian can see the face of Christ in the broken and disfigured, and why the cross is held up as perennially exquisite.
If art, as Bernard Lonergan holds, is always “relevant to concrete living” and is “a fundamental element in the freedom of consciousness itself” (because we need perspective to understand our own lives), then Of Gods and Men impels us by its intrinsic beauty to ask how I might change or live my life according to Christian love. And it invites us to follow the Suffering One on his journey up a lonely hill.
Begin all meditations with the prayer recommended by St. Ignatius. Ask God our Lord for the grace “that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be ordered purely to his service and praise.”
1. Pray on the Last Supper (John 13-17). This is the “farewell discourse” of Jesus. Read the entire discourse, and note any three points or teachings that strike you. When you are finished reading, return to those three points and pray with each of them.
2. Pray on the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26: 36-56).
3. Pray on the Way of the Cross and Calvary (Matt 27: 24-54).
Close each meditation with an “Our Father”.
The text of Fr. Christian's letter:
Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly.
I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism.
This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul.
My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.