Of Gods and Men is one of the most moving and tender Christian films that I’ve seen in several years. It is understated, in terms of its Christian witness, and profoundly human. There is no great display of heroism here, just a group of devoted Christian men living courageously for Christ and peace in a violent place and time. The soundtrack is in French, with English subtitles. Please do not let this keep you from seeing this moving depiction of the very real world in which Christ has called some of his people to both live and die.
Based loosely upon real events that happened in 1996, seven French monks in Algeria are kidnapped by Islamic terrorists and disappear. (The reason that we know the story as well as we do is because two men escaped capture and told the story!) The circumstances of the murder of these seven brothers, which is clearly based upon facts, are still shrouded in a degree of mystery. The film rightly leaves the circumstances of their end in doubt, at least regarding specifics. But the truth is these men knew their end would come, sooner than later, and they faced this possibility with their eyes wide open. They did not feel called to become martyrs but they felt they were to live well where they were and stay at their post.
Prior to their abduction, the monks in Of Gods and Men, did know that they were in real danger — even though they had lived in friendly harmony with their Muslim neighbors for years. The group had to make a collective decision of whether to leave Algeria or stay. Every man had to first decide for himself. The movie grants each the dignity of individual struggle, which is wonderfully portrayed in some of the best film I recall seeing. But in the end this was also a community decision since the men took their vows and community seriously. This makes the story entirely countercultural for an American audience, all the more reason for you to see it.
This film has received numerous international awards but was a surprising omission among this year's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees. Anyone think that religion, and a stunning Christ-like conviction lived out powerfully in the midst of Islamic terrorism, could have influenced the Academy’s decision? I admit I lean that way rather strongly.
The cast is led by The Matrix Reloaded's Lambert Wilson as Christopher, the elected head monk. His role is played with a depth and tenderness that is memorable. Michael Lonsdale from Munich is the monastery's aging doctor. But it is shared strength as a band of brothers who are humble before Christ that has stirred many viewers to an awe that transcends skeptical opinions about religion or politics. This has happened in France, and across Europe, where Christian faith and belief remains at a profound low point in the popular cultural context.
The devotion of these men is not only remarkable but their way of facing their mortality is awe-inspiring. This inspiration is movingly expressed when the men join in the beautifully plain chant that fills the simple, but moving, soundtrack. The music of Tchaikovsky makes an emotionally climactic appearance in the sound when, having absorbed the consequences of their choice to stay in North Africa, the men share wine and listen to this music on an old tape deck.
I rarely see a movie that has been so undersold, even by the best critics. See Of Gods and Men if you want to consider what it means to live a peaceful life for Christ in the midst of terrorism and suffering. I am not likely to think about what it means to live and die for Christ in our world in the same way again, at least anytime soon.