Magazine | April 18, 2011, Issue

Light of the World

Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) (Sony Pictures Classics)
A review of Of Gods and Men

If the Vatican Observatory were to begin broadcasting Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence–style signals into space, and the Catholic Church went looking for a single story capable of introducing to an entirely alien consciousness the essence of the Christian life, I can think of no better candidate than Xavier Beauvois’s luminous Of Gods and Men.

The film, which debuted in France last year and only recently arrived stateside, takes place almost entirely within the walls of a small Cistercian monastery, in the nearby village, and on surrounding mountainsides. The mountains are the Atlas range in Algeria, and the village in question is populated exclusively by Muslims, with whom the Cistercians have an easy rapport. They supply medical care and other forms of assistance, attend festivals and birthday parties, and sell honey in the local marketplace. They do not proselytize directly, but their lives are a witness to Christian charity, and a fulfillment of the dictum attributed to Saint Francis: “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”

But good works are not all they do. They also worship and pray, morning and night, in the chapel and in their cells and around their dinner table. This is a film about charity and liturgy, and how the Eucharist and the parable of the Good Samaritan can be intimately intertwined.

Except that being the Algerian equivalent of a Samaritan — outsiders in a Muslim country, that is — turns out to be enough to get the monks killed.

Of Gods and Men is based on a true story from Algeria’s bloody 1990s civil war, when seven Cistercians were kidnapped from their monastery and found beheaded two months later. The circumstances of their death were mysterious: An Islamist group claimed credit for the slaying, but there were suggestions that the brothers had been killed by government forces in a botched rescue attempt. In different hands, this mystery would be a spur to speculation and embellishment. But Beauvois does not propose a theory of what really happened to his characters; indeed, he implies their fate, rather than depicting it. His film is interested in a different question: not how they died, but why they stayed.

The answer is for God, and for one another. Their prior, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), is sure of his course from the beginning. After Algeria’s Islamists begin their campaign of terror, he brusquely dismisses a local official’s offer to station troops at the monastery, and when a group of militants shows up to menace the monks on Christmas Eve, he dismisses them with a barrage of Koranic quotations. (The real-life Brother Christian was an officer in the French Army before he took his vows, and Wilson plays him with the bearing of a soldier and the sensibilities of a religious intellectual.)

#page#His fellow monks are more uncertain. Their vocation is contemplation and charity, not martyrdom, and the democracy of the monastery lets them argue with Christian, and with one another, about what to do and where to go. Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the doctor of the group, is old and mischievous, subtle and unafraid of the test to come. (“I’m not scared of death,” he tells the prior, his eyes twinkling above their ample bags. “I’m a free man.”) Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), the youngest monk, is the most vocal advocate for leaving, and the most obviously terrified of death. The others are divided, pulled one way by their fears, the other by their love for the life they’ve chosen and the place where they have made it.

The beauty of that place and life are crucial to the film’s theological theme. By insisting on the goodness of creation even as it admires its characters for being willing to depart it, Of Gods and Men wonderfully illustrates the difference between Christianity and gnosticism, between an asceticism that cares intensely for this world and an asceticism that merely renounces it. This is a film about men in love with God, but both the monks and the movie are in love with life as well. Seen through Beauvois’s skillful lens, the bare simplicity of Cistercian life yields a rich and extraordinary beauty — visible not only in the skies and mountainsides, but in a cord of firewood, an upturned garden bed, the worn flesh of an aged face.

This theme is distilled in the monks’ last meal together, when Brother Luc unexpectedly uncorks a rare vintage of red wine and puts a tape of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into the cassette player. It’s the only time secular music breaks into the movie’s sacred world, but really in that moment it’s the sacred that envelops the secular and claims it for its own. The world is redeemed and its glories revealed, Of Gods and Men suggests, whenever Christians take up the cross of Christ: The monks are dying as he died, and like him they are making all things new.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Replacement Plan

On health care, Republicans have unified behind a slogan rather than a policy. The slogan, “repeal and replace,” describes what they want to do to the Democrats’ health-care law, also ...


Politics & Policy

Tocqueville and the Tube

Television makes us fat, lazy, inattentive, unsociable, mistrustful, materialistic — and unhappy about all of that. It cheapens political discourse, weakens family ties, prevents face-to-face socializing, and exposes kids to ...
Politics & Policy


President Obama’s use of military force in Libya has come under intense criticism across the American political spectrum. There is widespread disagreement over what U.S. objectives should be, and many ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Light of the World

If the Vatican Observatory were to begin broadcasting Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence–style signals into space, and the Catholic Church went looking for a single story capable of introducing to an ...
The Straggler

Decline and Fall

There is a school of psychology called Situationism that pooh-poohs the notion of individual character. This line of thought began with some experiments by Stanley Milgram of Yale in the ...
Politics & Policy

The Parent Trap

When Andrew Ferguson attended Occidental College in the 1970s, colleges were already moving away from fussy old requirements like American history, English composition, and foreign languages, and towards the anything-goes ...
Politics & Policy

TR’s Goal-Line Stand

Baseball may still try to market itself as our national pastime, but there’s little doubt that football is our national passion. By any measurement, the popularity of college and professional ...


Politics & Policy


Who Will Review the Judicial Reviewers? In his reply to Pamela K. Grow’s letter concerning nullification, Allen C. Guelzo states, correctly, “If the founders had wanted to grant nullifying power — ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ To be fair, Obama is right: Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that Congress has to declare kinetic military action. ‐ The Congressional Budget Office released an analysis of ...
The Long View

NSA Document Extract

NSA Document Extract POTUS Secured Communications 03.24.11 09:33EDT Begin Extract Static. Ringing. Unidentified Male Voice: Hello? POTUS: Mr. President? It’s Barack Obama. UMV: Well hey. Hey! Barack Obama. Lemme just — Barb, can you turn that down? ...
Politics & Policy


WINDOW SHOPPER’S IVORY The grand and opulent curve – the tusk from a beast long gone; now observed held firm, upon its dark, exotic wooden base. At first glance, the surface appears merely uneven; but a ...
Happy Warrior

Esprit de l’Escalier

Wandering round this great republic predicting the apocalypse, I’m often asked by audience members why it is I’m being quite so overwrought if not an hysterical old queen about the ...

Most Popular

Film & TV

The Manly Appeal of Ford v Ferrari

There used to be a lot of overlap between what we think of as a Hollywood studio picture (designed to earn money) and an awards movie (designed to fill the trophy case, usually with an accompanying loss of money). Ford v Ferrari is a glorious throwback to the era when big stars did quality movies about actual ... Read More
Politics & Policy

ABC Chief Political Analyst: GOP Rep. Stefanik a ‘Perfect Example’ of the Failures of Electing Someone ‘Because They Are a Woman’

Matthew Dowd, chief political analyst for ABC News, suggested that Representative Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.) was elected due to her gender after taking issue with Stefanik's line of questioning during the first public impeachment hearing on Wednesday. “Elise Stefanik is a perfect example of why just electing ... Read More
White House

Trump vs. the ‘Policy Community’

When it comes to Russia, I am with what Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman calls the American “policy community.” Vindman, of course, is one of the House Democrats’ star impeachment witnesses. His haughtiness in proclaiming the policy community and his membership in it grates, throughout his 340-page ... Read More
Law & the Courts

DACA’s Day in Court

When President Obama unilaterally changed immigration policy after repeatedly and correctly insisting that he lacked the constitutional power to do it, he said that congressional inaction had forced his hand. In the case of his first major unilateral move — “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” which ... Read More
White House

Impeachment and the Broken Truce

The contradiction at the center of American politics in Anno Domini 2019 is this: The ruling class does not rule. The impeachment dog-and-pony show in Washington this week is not about how Donald Trump has comported himself as president (grotesquely) any more than early convulsions were about refreshed ... Read More