"Of Gods And Men" ("Des Hommes Et Des Dieux")

I at last saw this remarkable film this evening. It is set in and around a real-life French-founded Catholic Cistercian monastery in the Algerian Atlas mountains. It tells the story of 8 monks who lived there and events that took place during the winter of 1996. This was while I was studying in Paris and I remember all too well the news breaking.

MILD SPOILER ALERT (I don't give away much, to be honest)

Having heard all about the film from French confrères over the past few months and having read reviews and French magazine articles interviewing the cast (who all said what a profound effect the making of the film had had on them), I braced for disappointment. And, to be fair, during the predominantly wordless opening 15 mins. which slowly built up a feel for the characters and for their way of life, I feared that it had all been much ado about nothing. Wordless... well, almost. We hear and see the monks in prayer singing the Divine Office, and it is the actors themselves who do the singing live on set (no overdubbing). And a fine job they do too. In fact, this is the only "soundtrack" music in the whole film. It is this attention to detail that started to win me over. The film is painstaking, but not overly forced, in its attempt to reach a level of authenticity in its representation of the life of the monks in their monastic community

Gradually the drama kicks in. We start to hear snippets of conversation between the monks, we see them interact with local villagers who depend heavily on the monks in many ways (especially for medical care), we see glimpses of Islamic terrorists and their actions, we witness the violent murder of Croat workers... but most importantly we eavesdrop on the monks as they debate whether they should stay or whether they should flee the ever escalating violence. As a member of a religious community myself, I could very much empathise with the soul-searching that the monks undertook and also with the rationale behind their final decision.

The cast do a tremendous job throughout without ever trying to seem "saintly". These were simply men who had been attracted by a "greater love" (as one character says in a touching conversation about love with a young local woman) than that which can come through human relationships. The film seems to have borrowed a few ideas from the wonderful documentary from a few years ago, "Into Great Silence", about a year in the life of a Carthusian monastery, La Grande Chartreuse, high up in the French Alps. In particular the film's use of close-ups of the monks' faces that seem to give us glimpses into their souls and through which we see all at once the very believable simultaneous mixture of fear, love, trust, deep peace and the mutual bond that grows ever stronger as their lives become ever more threatened.

There are many scenes that moved me to tears and will haunt me for a very long time (in fact I spent most of the 2nd half of the film with tears about to fall), none more so than when the monks hear a helicopter approach overhead whilst they are in silent prayer in their chapel: the Abbot (the elected leader or "shepherd" of the monastery) stands and begins to intone a hymn. The other monks join him and put their arms around each other's shoulders in a sign of mutual love and support, but also of defiance.

As I have been writing this, the words of a song by Switchfoot came to me. I think they suit very well the scene I have just described and what the monks go through in the last part of the film:

Switchfoot: "Sing It Out"

I'm on the run
I'm on the ropes this time
Where is my song?
I've lost the song of my soul tonight

Sing it out
Sing it out
Take what is left of me
Make it a melody
Sing it out
Sing out loud
I can't find the words to sing
You'd be my remedy
My song, my song
I'll sing with what's left of me

Where is the sun?
Feel like a ghost this time
Where have you gone?
I need your breath in my lungs tonight

Sing it out
Sing it out
Take what is left of me
Make it a melody
Sing it out
Sing out loud
I can't find the words to sing
You'd be my remedy
My song, my song
I'll sing with what's left of me

I'm holding on
I'm holding on to you
My world is wrong
My world is a lie that's come true
And I fall in love with the ones that run me through
When all along, all I need is you

Sing it out
Sing it out
Take what is left of me
Make it a melody
Sing it out
Sing out loud
I can't find the words to sing
Come be my remedy
My song, my song
My song
I'll sing with what's left of me

..... I love these words: "I can't find the words to sing
Come be my remedy
My song, my song
My song
I'll sing with what's left of me"

Whenever I hear this song I will think of that scene and those monks. This line: "And I fall in love with the ones that run me through". These men of God had indeed fallen in love with Algeria and the local people whom they served. It had become their home and the people there had become their brothers and sisters. But the local people themselves became victims of the extremists who were at war with the Government. The film pointedly distinguishes between these Muslims villagers and the Islamic extremists who "kill their brothers".

I'm taking Fr. Andrew to see the film on Tues. I may well go back and see it a third time if I can.

Here are 2 images of the real-life monks of Tibhirine monastery.

See below for further info:
http://www.sonyclassics.com/ofgodsandmen/
http://bit.ly/hf2URK



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