Review by Throwback
Let me begin by saying that this review gives away the ending of the movie. This shouldn’t be a big deal, considering that the end is pretty well-publicized by now. You’ve been warned. Now, onward.
Of Gods and Men came out in 2010 and generated a surprising amount of conversation for a French movie. No offense to my home country, but there is a reason why movies with subtitles (other than Passion of the Christ) are typically exiled to the small, somewhat unkempt theater on the other side of town. We just don’t like them very much. This one, though, had a bit of resonance even among non-Catholic viewers due to its portrayal of a group of Trappist monks living in Muslim Algeria. It goes without saying that how Christians can relate to Muslims is a high priority on most minds these days. This is less important in the overall picture than what the movie has to say about the religious vocation and martyrdom. Make no mistake, these are topics that are alien to modern minds that have grown accustomed to connecting martyrdom to crazy people blowing themselves up. Protestants who have been seduced by the “prosperity gospel” are especially puzzled by these scenarios. After all, if God just wants you to be rich and successful, why would He allow faithful to be killed?
None of this would be very meaningful if the acting wasn’t top-notch. Thankfully, each performance is just that. Even with subtitles, I don’t recall a weak performance in the bunch. With films like this, you always run the risk of the characters running together and nobody being able to distinguish one monk (in this case) from another. The only actors I recognized were Lambert Wilson, who you probably know as The Merovingian in the Matrix movies, and Michael Lonsdale, aka Hugo Drax from Moonraker. This didn’t matter. Whether it was Amedee or Celestin, you became attached to each of the monks as individuals and not just as a collective. Nor are we faced with a group where everyone is overly pious and resigned to their fate because they long for the Beatific Vision. They all have their own reflections on why they do what they do.
As mentioned above, I’m a typical American and therefore don’t watch many foreign movies. I’d never heard of director Xavier Beauvois until this production. His style seems like most European movies that I have seen, though: Lots of hard cuts and scene breaks with maximum on the atmosphere and minimalism on most everything else. This works particularly well when you are dealing with monks in North Africa. The thing that really surprised me was the pacing. This easily could have dragged on with endless shots of monastic life and forced interactions with the Muslim villagers. I liked Into Great Silence, but that kind of portrayal wouldn’t have fit here. Beauvois also could have deleted all this stuff together and simply focused on the growing threats from the government and terrorists, which would have made it difficult to understand their final decision.
Because it deserves special mention, let me say that the “last supper” scene is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Ever. I’m guessing that the people who criticize it for being cheesy or sappy simply have no appreciation for what is actually going on.
Speaking of criticism, I’ve seen some bad reviews from Catholics because of what they perceive as a message of indifferentism. Having read the biography of the monks, I can see where they are coming from, but at least as regards this film, I’m not so sure about this. The monks certainly interact with the villagers. On many levels, they take care of them. Do we see any overt attempts at converting them? No. Do we see them talk explicitly about their vocation? Yes. Do they read from and quote the Koran? Yes. Is this a problem? I don’t see why. You can bet that if I’m living in a situation like that, I’m going to know the Koran backwards and forwards. The problems of indifferentism do seem to come out much more if you read the biography of the monks, The Monks of Tibhirine by John Kizer, which does seem to suggest, in real life at least, that these monks were more concerned with "mutual enrichment" between themselves and their Sufi Muslim neighbors than with actual conversion. This doesn't come through as much in the film; ironically, the true history is a little bit more imbued with the idea of "interreligious dialogue" than the actual film. Oh well. It is what it is. Those determined to find problems with this angle of it probably will, while those who aren't as touchy about that subject won't see anything problematic.
There is a potential problem with the final note. The film is very poetic, which leaves it open to a lot of interpretations. Is it possible to take this as contrary to Church teaching? Sure. I assert that this is not the only possibility, and I hope to see comments from fellow viewers as to their own take. Regardless of all this, it is not something that tainted the whole show for me. It’s maybe one minute of the whole thing.
Overall, this was a well-made movie with moving performances and a marvelous demonstration of what it means to live under the shadow of persecution while remaining true to one’s calling from God. I refuse to let one segment overshadow these things. Watch this movie, then recommend it to your friends.
Two and a half papal tiaras.