Films are an important feature of popular culture but can they also be a vehicle for theological enquiry? Veritas thinks they can! Every month during the Year of Faith, we offer a Film of the Month,which we invite you to watch, reflect on and discuss. As an initiative for the Year of Faith, you might like to start a Year of Faith Film Club in your work, school or parish community, where these films can be discussed and shared. Film reviews are kindly provided by Fr John-Paul Sheridan PhD.
Film of the Month for March: Of Gods and Men
I say, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless,
you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.’
This is the first foreign-language film that we have presented for film of the month. Based on a true story, it gives an account of the Trappist monks from a monastery in Algeria who were kidnapped and died during the Algerian Civil War. The film was released in 2010, and is 122 minutes long. The title comes from Psalm 82, as quoted above. It is a story of sacrifice, service and, above all, martyrdom. The word ‘martyr’ comes from the Greek μάρτυρ, which means witness. What the film shows is witness both in life and in death.
In March 1996, seven monks from the monastery of Our Lady of the Atlas Mountains at Tibhirine in Algeria were taken from their monastery and held by Islamic extremists for two months before being beheaded. Their heads were found in May 1996.
The monks were all French Trappists and members of a small monastic community which served a mostly Muslim population in a small village. They were Christian de Chergé, Luc Dochier, Christophe Lebreton, Michel Fleury, Bruno Lemarchand, Célestin Ringeard and Paul Favre-Miville.
Of Gods and Men is based around the life and work of the Trappist community and is set during the ten-year Algerian Civil War (1991–2002).
The film focuses on their daily prayer, or the work among the villagers, and contains long scenes of their Eucharistic celebrations and the chanting of the liturgy of the hours. It shows a life of contemplation and service, grounded in humility and gentleness.
When violence begins to erupt, the Algerian government wants the monks to leave the country, but the monks realise that the villagers need them. The community have decisions to make, both in their everyday life and whether to stay in Algeria or return to France. There is also an internal struggle for the individuals involved. These struggles in the face of credible threats to their lives form the basis of the film. The film shows the monks’ devotion to God, visually depicting the reason why they could not leave. It also shows the unifying symbolism of prayer and Eucharist – even though they are at odds as to what to do, they are united when they pray.
Controversy still surrounds the deaths of the monks, especially in light of the fact that their bodies have never been found. A retired French general swore a testimony before a magistrate that the monks were killed by the Algerian Security Forces during a raid on the camp where they were being held. In 2009, President Sarkozy promised to release classified documents relating to the case. However, this controversy is neither alluded to nor solved in the film. Central to the film is not the question of who did what, but why the monks chose to stay.
The film was directed by Xavier Beauvois, who also wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Etienne Comas. Most of the actors would be unknown to Irish audiences, with the possible exception of Lambert Wilson, who appeared in the Matrix, and Michael Lonsdale, who appeared as the abbot in The Name of the Rose and as the police inspector in The Day of the Jackal. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes and scooped a number of other awards in France. It was submitted for the American Academy Awards but it didn’t make the shortlist. It had a modest beginning, but gradually word began to circulate about this film outside France and it became very popular in the rest of Europe and in the United States.
For a film synopsis and questions for reflection, please click here