Film offers fine meditation on the divine

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP | Contributor
Sunday, February 27, 2011

Of Gods and Men” is a feature film made in France about seven Cistercian monks killed in Algeria in 1996 (subtitled in English). It’s up for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, a pretty big deal, especially because the film itself (not just the subject matter) is profoundly and explicitly religious.

The film takes its time to get you into the rhythm of the lives of the monks. We chop wood with them, attend to mothers and children in the free clinic, make and sell honey, work the land, eat in common, but most of all pray together. There are lots and lots of prayer times, with beautiful singing in French: “hymns and Psalms and inspired songs.”

The Psalms, in particular, become more and more germane and real as the danger increases. There’s a beautiful scene where the liturgically vested, white-robed monks throw their arms on each other’s shoulders in a chain as they sing their prayers (the ever-strong Psalm 141) while helicopters menace over the chapel.

“Of Gods and Men” is also a marvelous film for interreligious dialogue and reflection. Algeria is a Muslim country, colonized by the French. This causes built-in problems, but also a coming together of two nations and religions with a great deal of mutual respect. The common people love the monks and the monks love them. An armed terrorist apologizes for bursting in on the monks on Christmas, the birth of the “Prince of Peace.” Muslim village elders decry the violence against non-combatants erupting in the Civil War. This is a very nuanced view of Islamic-Christian relations.

Why do these monks — more than 10 years later — still capture our imagination? Because they knew what they were getting into. They understood the brutality they could face. Although some hesitated to stay, others did not. As one said to another: “We already gave our lives by becoming monks.” Their act of heroism, of resistance, of love, of freedom was to stay and carry on with their daily lives of harmony, charity and worship.

This movie needs to be seen over and over. It’s a meditation. The Incarnation and Resurrection shine through this movie like sun through stained-glass. There is a continuous eschatological expectation shot throughout, even before death begins rattling his sabre. Few films ever get this close to the heart of Christianity. It’s all about imitating the helpless Christ Child and the vulnerable Pierced One who has the power to lay down his life and take it up again, and us with him.