Of Gods and Men
Haunting treatment of 1996 beheadings a powerfully empathetic look at belief
Published: March 23, 2011
Of Gods and Men
Directed by Xavier Beauvois
Opens March 25 at the Charles Theater
In the spring of 1996 seven French monks were beheaded in Algeria, capping two months spent as hostages of an armed Muslim group during that country’s decade-long civil war. This is the vague and minutes-brief close of Of Gods and Men: men led into a snowstorm by their captors, accompanied by an epigraph. It’s barely a footnote covering the inevitable outcome of a story that is almost impossible to grasp in a country where, creepy American-brand Christian fundamentalism be damned (in all senses), true faith is a fleeting concept—and where the idea of martyrdom is fully and irreparably made ugly.
You could argue that martyrdom’s ugliness and a misunderstanding of faith are fully intertwined: You can’t understand martyrdom without properly understanding faith in the sense of giving yourself up to a thing. And, tragically, giving yourself up to a thing in the most full sense, to most of us, means suicide bombing as perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists and nothing else. Martyrdom is fundamentalism: the ugliest of ugly.
Things started to go bad at the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria around Christmas 1995, when rebel forces began to reach its rural mountain valley home. The monks lived in peace with the adjacent predominantly Muslim village. Conditions were far from idyllic—a history of colonial rule and a corrupt regime had left that village and most of the country in a bad way. The monastery did what it could in providing medicine and health care and, otherwise, functioned as part of the community and generally about the best neighbors for which an impoverished town could hope.
As the monastery community’s leader Christian (a devastating Lambert Wilson, notably of the Matrix sequels) reminds an extremist rebel, Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi), midway through the movie, the Quran instructs the faithful to treat Christians “with love.” Indeed, as the day-to-day relationships between the monks and the villagers play out, you realize just how similar the tone and teachings of the two religions are, and how much compassion and empathy means to both. That rebel solemnly acknowledges Christian’s point, and moves on.
But we don’t live in a world dominated by reasonable men like Christian and Fayattia. Christian had rejected all of the rebel force’s demands for medicine and medical help in that encounter, out of principles of peace. And so it was understood that the monastery’s time had become limited. The extremists would be back and under different terms. The monks were faced with a choice to leave the valley and return to France, abandoning the village to fear—trapped between extremists and a corrupt military—or staying and waiting for that inevitable.
It’s this deliberation that makes up the soul of the movie. What would it mean to leave—not just to the village, but to their faith? And the easier question, what would it mean to stay?
In the hands of the nearly flawless Of Gods and Men, that first answer is better left to images: happy but resigned tears and shared looks, white-robed monks staring worried but firm at the growing thup-thup-thup of a military helicopter, the rugged rock piles and small crosses of the monastery’s cemetery. There’s something in these images that’s almost too pure for words, and it captures what’s truly devastating about this story: less the monk’s actual death and martyrdom than something so untainted and unselfish as how they lived and believed.
So, yes: Those seven monks of Tibhirine died for their faith; the whole movie argues that they’d already given up their lives. But there’s more than that to Of Gods and Men. The movie’s empathy resides not just for the monks, but for the villagers and the fundamentalists too. Maybe that’s the “men” part of the title, a concession that everyone is weak in the end, whether that means succumbing to power (the local military leader wears an expression of being slowly torn apart inside) or fundamentalism (how the brutal rebel fighters look so much like impressionable boys). In the face of the inevitable, they’re all just people, and somehow it makes everything about this movie even more powerfully effective.
> Email Michael Byrne