Of Gods and Men

A note from Jamie Howison: Given our recent discussions at Theology by the Glass on Christian movies and cultural engagement, I can think of no better a current film to recommend than Of Gods and Men, currently playing in Winnipeg at the Globe Theatre.

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imply stated, this is a lovely, moving and substantial film, based on the true story of the 1996 kidnapping of a group of seven Trappist monks from their monastery during the Algerian Civil War. A film set in wartime dealing with kidnapping is lovely? Yes, it really is.

For generations the monks of the monastery of Tibhirine lived peaceably with the largely Muslim population of their village, taking part in local life and serving as something of an anchor for the local villagers. In the marketplace, in local homes, and at the medical clinic run by the monks, there is an ease of relationship between the French monks and their Algerian neighbours, yet a growing radical fundamentalist movement has made it increasingly difficult for that balance to hold. Driven more by an anti-colonial nationalism than by any truly religious or faith commitment, the radicals increasingly view the monastic presence as both an outside intrusion and as a potential bargaining chip for their cause.

The monks are more than a little aware of the danger, and so the question: do they stay, or do they return to France? With extraordinary attention to detail—and to facial expressions in particular—the film traces the struggles of the community to reach a common mind. Not surprisingly at the heart of this struggle are questions of life and death, yet here the questions are asked from the perspective of those who have already given their lives over to Christ. If as monks they have already left everything behind—if they have died to the old self so that they might live in Christ—is there anything to be gained in fleeing this village in which they have been called to live as Christian monks and disciples?

The answer is not an easy one, and there is not even a hint of pietism in the community’s discernment. Instead, their search for a common mind—for the mind of Christ, in fact—is portrayed in very real, and very human terms. The characters are real (and I have to say, I love the doctor…), their personalities unvarnished, their fears and reservations respected.

And wonderfully, their Muslim neighbours are equally real, and treated with enormous respect by the film-maker. Even the rebel leader is shown in a way that keeps him from being merely a caricature, which is quite remarkable given both the background story and the general hostility in our own day toward anything that even looks like a radical Islamist movement.

The film premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix, the festival’s second most prestigious award. It is currently playing at Winnipeg’s Globe Theatre, and will be released on DVD in July. To see the trailer for the film, simply click here.

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