Of Gods and Men

It’s been some time since I last watched a movie I loved for the first time. There have been some clean, enjoyable ones lately, like Dolphin Tale and The Odd Life of Timothy Green. I think what makes or breaks a movie for me is its depth. Odd Life and Dolphin Tale had good things to say, but they didn’t leave me thinking very hard. Most movies that do have a lot of depth often have a lot of bad stuff in them (like Schindler’s List), are poorly made, or are independent films that don’t make the news (not that every good movie has to – but they’re just not very well-known and so don’t get around).

Of Gods and Men breaks those molds. If you haven’t heard of it, watch the trailer here. There is minimal violence (I was expecting much more in a film about a civil war), two swear words, and no sensuality. There is, however, a fair bit of suspense. It takes a while to get going and even once the story is well underway it moves slowly, but the slowness captures stunning moments of reflection, pain, and beauty, building up to the climax. I really liked the pace, since it gave time in the movie to weigh the words and actions, and it brought you to know and understand the monks. Some of the theology seems strange, at least at first glance, mainly when they talk about loving the Muslims – sometimes it seems like they imply there are two ways to God, but I think rather than that their words come from an understanding that we are all people. I also appreciated that while they were monks, their simple living was not asceticism but done to focus on God and their neighbors, almost the “what-should-have-been” of the Roman Women.
The soundtrack geek in me must comment that I didn’t notice a soundtrack apart from what they sang and one other scene, which was interesting but worked really well.
I should also note that it is in French, with English subtitles.

Set in Algeria in 1990s, Of Gods and Men is about a group of monks ministering to their village during the civil war. They face Muslim terrorists, division from inside, and pressure from the outside to leave or accept government help.

Very early on, the monks are told that if the army does not protect them, they will be killed. Christian, the leader of the monks, says they do not want military protection. From then on in the movie, I was often reminded of The Hunger Games. Whenever I say that I don’t believe what Katniss did was right, people always ask me what I think they should have done. My answer is that saving our lives is not the highest good, but honoring God is, and the monks understood this.
The monks were willing to risk their lives by staying and keeping their freedoms to help the villagers because they knew what their calling was and they knew they needed to obey God, even if it cost them their lives. “I gave my life to God and to this country,” one says, and so they stay. That is beautiful.
This is a foreign idea in a world that puts self as god and comfort above ethics and others, but to Christians it should not be strange.
That’s my first big thought: Of Gods and Men is, in essence, an antitype of The Hunger Games, and in many ways embodies what the right thing to do is in situations where morality is challenged by death.

My second thought is a lesson for all of us in this world where terrorism is so prevalent and we have many enemies. First, the monks’ fear of God above the terrorists is exemplary. At one point, one of the monks says “I’m not scared of terrorists, even less of the army. And I’m not scared of death. I’m a free man.” But as the movie progresses, it’s easy to see that there are many times the monks are afraid. And yet, they “don’t fear what is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6), but cling to God for strength and hope. The beauty is not their fearlessness but their moving forward even in fear. They become so real and human, in a way that we all can strongly identify with. That’s part of what makes the movie so powerful.
Second, Christian makes it very clear who the enemy is, and embodies the command “love your enemies.” He holds fast to his principles even when death is nigh, pushing past fear to act rightly – and he sees the fruit from that.
Too often, Americans group all people in the Middle East as terrorists, or at least as enemies. I consider it a great privilege when I am able to show people that that’s not the case. At our last baptism at church, we baptized three people who by political standards would be considered our enemies. But they are more my friends and family than some Americans are. In saying that I do not deny the terrorism and the animosity between countries. But not all Americans agree with what America does, and this is true for many other countries as well. We must know who the enemy really is.
So some are our brothers – but what about those who do want to kill us? Those do qualify as enemies, but we still must love them. The monks show this very well, much to the surprise of the Algerian army. They do good to the terrorists when given the chance. They know the terrorists seek their death, but instead of hiding from them, the monks help them. I’m finding it difficult to explain it well, but Of Gods and Men shows it so beautifully. Christian and the others know these terrorists have souls, and so they love them.
This is clear in what they do, but Christian also writes of it.
“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.” {emphasis mine}

I’ve tried to give my thoughts, but the things the monks exemplify and teach us aren’t really things that can be said in words, but that you have to point to someone’s life to show. As Michael Card said,

“The deep things of the faith we learn less by didactic principle and more through people of faith and their simple stories …when we are struggling to explain a difficult topic like prayer, faith, or perhaps servanthood, we resort to naming a person who incarnates that ideal… When we seek to understand discipleship, we think of someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not because of his book on the subject, but because his life and death validated everything he spoke about in his writings.”

It’s the same with Of Gods and Men. If I try to say more, it will just be more of the same, joy at the beauty of their lives, of loving their enemies, holding God more important than their own lives, and pushing through fear to find great courage in God.
Of Gods and Men is a French-made film, set in Algeria. It holds a depth that not many other movies I’ve seen has. Lately I’ve been asking myself a lot why death and sorrow has such beauty. It’s not because they in themselves are good, but because good comes from them. America produces so few movies like this because it has so little suffering compared to the rest of the world. Americans are more interested in feel-good movies that make you forget than ones that inspire you and cause you to live still more.
If our lives are easy, then they’re also generally shallow and we know God very little. But when we suffer, we know Him more and we grow – and then we don’t regret the pain it took to get us there.

That was a bit of a tangent. But I hope that this review has made you want to watch Of Gods and Men, or if you don’t watch it that you were able to glean from what I loved about it, and see the beauty in their suffering, courage, and trust in God.

“…Day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s to be born.  Our identities as men go from one birth to another.  And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.  The Incarnation, for us, is to allow…  the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of the Incarnation remains what we are going to live.  In this way, what we’ve already lived here takes root … as well as what we’re going to live in the future.”

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