I have been looking forward to seeing the French film Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) for some time, and finally managed it in between ‘snow events’ this last Sunday. It is based on the events leading up to the murder of a group of seven French Benedictine monks in Algeria in 1996 by fundamentalists intent on terrorizing anyone who does not share their political or religious vision.
The main focus in the film is the process the group of monks go through to decide how to respond to intimidation and violence. They see their role in Algeria as supporting the people of the (Muslim) community amongst whom they live through the provision of medical care and contribution to their economy through farming and other monastic activities. They are accepted and welcomed by the locals, and, for their part, are well versed in local culture and in Islam and the Koran. However, marauding gangs of fundamentalists are intent on using terror to force non-Muslims out of Algeria. Fearful for their safety, locals encourage them to leave, and there is also pressure from official quarters in the same direction.
The monks at first have differing views on whether to stay or go. In a Gethsemene-like period of prayer and discernment, they gradually come round to sharing the view of the head monk, Brother Christian, that their vocation is not about personal security but about living out their faith and call to service to others in complete integrity and without fear. So they stay.
Needless to say, one night the terrorist gang comes back and after a period of captivity the monks are marched up a remote hill through swirling mist (another Gethsemene hint) and executed.
The film has huge resonances for our world: the possibility of Christians and Muslims living peaceably alongside each other, understanding and respecting each other but being true to their own faith and way of life; the challenge of living in a community and reaching a corporate decision through prayer and reflection rather than coercion; discovering the absolute roots of one’s existence and being true to them despite pressures to do otherwise.
The actual fate of the monks executed in Algeria in 1996 remains a mystery. Details of the way they met their end are not known. The film-maker has created a work of art which reflects the spirit of the real story, rather than its details, and done so masterfully. Needless to say, the film is not showing in our local Odeon cinema, which seems to show only mainstream Hollywood-type films, despite having the capacity to offer more challenging art-house film as well, but Trinity Arts in Tunbridge Wells are showing it on 9th March (http://www.trinitytheatre.net/Film). I for one recommend it without reservation.