A perfect Sunday in New York City: St. Thomas Fifth Avenue at 11, a long walk in sunny Central Park, Bach Vespers at 5, and in between, one of the most compelling movies you are likely to see any time soon: Of Gods and Men. This French film tells the true story of a small group of Cistercian monks who shared their lives with the poor of Algeria from their rural monastery. It has been a huge hit in France but has only now arrived here after some rather intense word of mouth (it recently won the French Cesar award for Best Film of 2010).
The dilemma of the monks during the protracted, brutal civil war which engulfed Algeria in the 1990s is presented in emotionally and ethically wrenching terms. There is every reason for them to return to France, out of danger, yet they feel compelled to stay with their Muslim neighbors. The movie depicts their struggles to decide whether to stay or go. In 1996, seven of them were kidnapped, held for two months, and then killed by Islamist extremists in circumstances which have never been discovered. Their lives and witness are not forgotten, however. They are called “the Atlas monks” or “the monks of Tibhirine” (there is an excellent book about them by the latter name).
The real-life leader of the monks, Christian de Chergé, was from a military family and actually fought in the French Army in Algeria before becoming a monk. In the movie, we learn that Christian speaks and writes Arabic, and knows the Koran well. The actor (Lambert Wilson) who plays Christian in the movie developed an extraordinarily beautiful, spiritual face and bearing for the role. One scene in particular stands out for the way in which the actor portrays Christian’s confrontation with a leader of the militant Islamists, displaying an arresting combination of Christian pacifism, cross-cultural insight, and a powerful calm.
We see the monks at prayer many times, and the texts of their chants are subtitled, so that we can participate in their worship with them. The secular reviewers have emphasized the syncretistic aspects of the monk’s relationship to their Muslim neighbors, but most Christians will find the prayers and brotherly love of the monks to be very much centered on Jesus Christ. When Christian becomes certain that he may be killed, he writes a letter to leave on his desk, urging that his death not be allowed to distort French views of Muslims, and forgiving his killers as Christ forgave his.
This newly arrived film is one of four about Algeria which I have viewed recently. Taken together they have much to teach us. I will write about the other three shortly.