Saturday, November 19, 2011

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) -- mission, meditation and martyrdom

Director:  Xavier Beauvois, 2010 (R)

Would we face danger, even death, in service of our God? For most of us, even devout followers of Jesus, this question is academic, one we might debate over coffee. For a group of Trappist monks living in a rural part of Algeria, this was an authentic and concrete question that they faced and had to wrestle with.

The film opens with a quote from Psalm 82:6-7: ““I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” This underscores the impending doom of the story. But then, the film is based on a true account, and for those who remember the events of 1996 the end is pre-ordained.

Like most French films, the plot is slow. Indeed, the first half hour focuses on the ordinary lives of this group of monks, showing them in their monastery praying, eating, chanting, and in their interactions with the Muslim villagers. They may live simple lives in their Catholic community but many of the villagers are even poorer.

The first section of the film is important to set the context and the tone. These men love God. That is clear from their worship and devotion in the monastery. But they also love their neighbors, even when these neighbors are Muslim. This neighborly love is demonstrated in the free medical clinic they offer, manned by Luc (Michael Lonsdal), the medic, and in the time they spend in the Muslim community with these people. They present a picture of what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thess. 2:7-8: “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” Yet their focus is not evangelistic. They are satisfied to coexist with these Muslims. The leader of the monastery, brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) even studies the Koran as a means to understand and love them more deeply.

Once the context is set, writer-director Beauvois introduces the dramatic tension. A fundamentalist Islamic terrorist group murders some foreign workers. This scene is graphic and shocking, but communicates the dangers facing those living in Algeria. The Algerian government offers protection, at first, to the monks, but they want none. Christian points out, “We were called to live here, in this country, with this people, who are also afraid.” So they stand firm in their faith; yet the seed of doubt is sown. The question now faces them: to stay and minister and possibly die, or to retreat and live.

With danger hanging over them, discord grows and even tempers flare. Christian wants to stay but others have differing opinions. “I didn’t come here to commit collective suicide,” says one. Another adds, “I became a monk to live, not to sit back and have my throat slit.”

Of Gods and Men offers a view into the doubt that even deep men of faith face. We would think that such monks would embrace this danger like the apostles, being ready to live or die for the Lord. Yet, they are as human as we are, and they struggle with these fears. One cannot sleep, but lies in his bed undergoing a crisis of faith, praying: “As a kid I dreamed of becoming a missionary. Dying for my faith shouldn’t keep me up at nights.”

But in the midst of all this, the film shows how these monks handle such danger and despair: they go on with their lives, seeking God in the midst of it all. Whether seeking solitude in the fields or by a lake to ponder God’s small voice, or in the collective community of praying and chanting, they look to God to influence their decisions. And hear him they do.

The beauty of the film is in its depiction of these meditations. Beauvois eschews a musical soundtrack in favor of a quietness expected of monks. There is little dialog and virtually no music. Instead, we hear the monks chanting hymns in French and following their rituals of prayer and genuflection. The French actors did their own singing and they are surprisingly good. Olivier Rabourdin, who plays Brother Christophe, spoke about this: “To chant Psalms is to breathe together, to share the Breath of Life.” Isn’t this one aspect of the Word of God that happens as we meditate on it?

When the terrorists visit the monastery the tension increases. And as they later return with a wounded member, the monks demonstrate a Christ-like love. Jesus commanded us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk. 6:27). Knowing they would be serving those who could be their killers, Luc and his friends treat the Muslims as fellow humans who need help. They showed practical love regardless of the cost.

The most powerful scene occurs late in the film when the men have made their decision and are enjoying a supper together. One turns on some music: Swan Lake. As the strains of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet plays over them, the men enjoy their last supper. Like Christ’s last supper, this one is full of powerful but unspoken emotion. There are no need for words.

Of Gods and Men was France’s official submission to the Academy Awards. Though it never won there, it picked up the Grand Prix prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the second highest award. It seeks not to explain this historical event. Instead it ends abruptly, leaving a profound meditation on missionaries and martyrdom. The tag line declared, “In the face of terror, their greatest weapon was faith.” For them it was. How about for us? Hopefully, we never face this situation, but whatever trials or terrors we face, will we approach them in faith, praying, singing and chanting psalms? If so, we will be victorious whether we live or die.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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