Of Gods and Men
Naively I hadn’t appreciated this was a true story so it was a sad shock to discover that during the 1996 Algerian Civil War, nine Trappist monks from a monastery in Tibhirine were captured and killed by terrorists.
The monks live peacefully with the local Muslim community, following a routine of prayer, study, gardening and medical assistance. This idyllic life comes under threat from Islamic fundamentalists who abruptly and swiftly begin genocide of local western residents.
Christian, the Abbot, declines the protection of the corrupt civil authority and soon the monks are divided on their future. They wrestle with their human desire to flee Algeria, and their godly duty to stay.
The monks (and audience) experience intense agonies of doubt, where their instinctive fear of death tests their faith to the limit. To signify this ‘full circle’ conclusion, the film is top and tailed with long cinematic scenes showing their silent, reflective struggle. At the start they dutifully garden, cook and study in their mountain-perched monastery while at the end, they trudge along a snowy path towards their fate.
The film is littered with these spacious silences which patch together like a quilt. They’re linked, but not necessarily directly one after the other. There’s a scene half way through the film, after the monks’ first express their desire to flee, where Christian writes a letter. It seems like another innocent day to day task, but at the end of the film, in those grim final moments, a voice over reads from this note, clearly Christian’s final testament.
It shows Christian knew before the others their fate was martyrdom. He is the father figure whose authority they resist (objecting to his refusal for government protection) and who’s love they seek - consoling, teaching and leading throughout the conflict.
The heart of the film is summed up in one spine-tingling ‘last supper’ scene. The monks eat and listen to an old recording of Tchaikovsky's Grand Theme from Swan Lake. The camera does nothing more than pan from face to face around the dinner but their changing reactions – fear, joy, peaceful acceptance - says more than any amount of dialogue could. Their ‘Greek chorus’ style psalms have been replaced, perhaps signifying their eventual acceptance of God’s will.
I’d recommend this film regardless of your religious conviction; it’s a fascinating depiction of the power of faith and the frailty of human emotion, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon (after all, it is the Lord’s day).