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Light of the World

by Ross Douthat
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.)

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.

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