Sunday, June 12, 2011

OF GODS AND MEN - FILM REVIEW (2010 - Directed by Xavier Beauvois)

"I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul ... This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills - immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with Him his children of Islam just as he sees them ..."
- Dom Christian de Chergé

Let us turn to the Man of Sorrows,
Who beckons us from the cross,
Because He is with us as on Easter morn.
Let us not forget the blood He shed.
Let us break the bread.
Let us drink from the chalice of passage.
Let us greet the One who sacrificed Himself.
By loving us until the end,
Through Him, with Him and in Him,
You shall receive, Almighty Father,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All glory and honor,
Forever and ever.

- Trappist Hymn excerpt

So how do I convince you to make the effort to see something that, at a first superficial glance, seems really boring? Of Gods and Men is a slow and thoughtfully paced film. Of course, if that's not your thing, at the moment it looks like you could just go see, oh say, The Hangover 2 , Bridesmaids , Fast Five , Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Priest, Rio, Prom, or Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family . A whole glut of summer movies are also about to release for your viewing pleasure along the lines of Bad Teacher , Transformers 3 , Zookeeper , Friends with Benefits , The Smurfs , Final Destination 5 , and Conan the Barbarian . Sounds like fun?

After reading up a bit, looks like Of Gods and Men has actually been praised by a majority of critics. But does that mean many people are going to go see it? Nope. It contains long slow tracking shots of the landscape, sunrises and sunsets, and countrysides of Algeria. It contains lengthy, softly sung Gregorian chants and hymns voiced in worshipful tones by a small collection of Trappist monks. It's directed by the actor who played the father in Ponette . And it contains, mostly, conversations and sermons about theology - a dry topic in the eyes of modern day culture if there ever was one. Of course, there's also a collection of film reviewers who are echoing the sentiments of the majority of the population. Daniel Eagan, from Film Journal International, complains that the "monastery is depicted with documentary precision" (he doesn't mean that to be a complement) and then asks:

"Are the monks paying for the sins of the colonials? Beauvois won't say, but by depicting most of the Algerians as menacing thugs or corrupt killers, he absolves the monks, and by extension the French population, of any complicity in the story's events."

Colonialism and imperialism? The French colonized Algeria around 1830. The story in Of Gods and Men is set in 1995. Yeah, that's relevant to the story, Mr. Eagan. But come to think of it, there really isn't any reason to care about this story if the main characters are all just religious imperialists who are imposing their culture on an Islamic land. One assumes Mr. Eagan just needed an excuse to explain his boredom with the film - so it was their fault for being in Algeria in the first place. Given that the film does not portray most of the Algerians as killers and thugs, let's be kind to Mr. Eagan and just assume he only sat through the first 15 minutes or so before walking out of the movie theater.

Tony Medley writes -

"The movie is so long and so without pace that it seems as if we see each and every chant they made throughout those 3 years, unexpurgated. Not only that, but the lyrics of the songs and chants are shown in subtitles. These songs go on for several minutes each. That pretty much tells you that this is a story that could have been told in 15 minutes but director Xavier Beauvois must have had a lot of film that he had to get rid of, so he stretched it out with the scenes of the monks singing. Either that or he thought he was filming a musical and intends to use this as an application to direct a remake of Singin’ in the Rain.

When filming seven monks singing religious songs didn’t get rid of all the film, he inserted thoughts of each of the monks thinking. What were they thinking about? There were Islamic terrorists who had slain a bunch of Croats in the area and because they thought the monks were in danger the army encouraged them to leave. That doesn’t sound like a particularly difficult decision, but they ponder it throughout the entire film, at least when they weren’t singing, and in the end they make the totally illogical decision to stay."


Mr. Medley couldn't be bothered with paying attention to the actual lyrics and poetry embedded in the monks' songs. The content of these songs is directly relevant to why these characters make the choices that they make. Neither could he care in the least how this little historical group of missionaries were providing aide and comfort for a poor third-world village in need of medical care and education. The monks' decision to stay working in this community is actually thoughtfully and carefully reasoned out during the film, but Mr. Medley was too busy being annoyed to notice.

The complaints continue. Joe Williams, in the St. Louis-Post Dispatch, looks down his nose at the film and opines that "... a conscientious critic can't just genuflect to the lofty ideals that the characters represent without noticing that the film they inhabit is flat." Sam Adams, from the AV Club, sneers that "[t]he film mistakes volume for weight, assuming that if a scene goes on long enough, viewers will get the sense it’s important ... the film has a scant feeling for spirituality, which mainly surfaces in the monks’ fatalist hymns." Mr. Williams is left cold by a film about men who decide their work and ministry is more important than their lives. They've dedicated themselves to living out their lives for God, and therefore in service to others in need. Mr. Adams describes their songs as fatalistic. Why? Because they reason their way from their praising God to their risking their lives for the service of others.

The shadows, for You are not shadows
For You, night is as clear as day ...

We do not see your face
Infinite Love,
but you do have eyes
for you weep through the oppressed
and look upon us
with a shining gaze
that reveals your forgiveness

- Trappist Hymn excerpt

Again, obviously the nobility in the story of this film is not for everyone.

Mr. Kirk Honeycutt grumbles in The Hollywood Reporter -

"The problem is that a whiff of saintliness envelops the Cistercian monks right from the start. The doctor (Michael Lonsdale) ministers to the sick from a nearby village while their wise leader (Lambert Wilson) guides them in prayers and songs. Occasionally, he strolls in the picturesque countryside, as the songs by a male choir fill the soundtrack. Presumably, he's pondering the monks' safety. Then again, who knows what he's thinking?

Obviously, not Mr. Honeycutt. God forbid any historical character in a film be given even a whiff of saintliness. Mr. Honeycutt instead much prefers films like Hop, The Company Men, or Love and other Drugs . Those films have a different whiff of something altogether ... and they aren't full of boring old prayers and songs that reflect upon the meaning of life, and upon the nature of God and man.

You think the main characters in the film had it rough. That's nothing compared to the travails of the bored out of his mind film reviewer, like oh say, Christopher Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd resents the time that he was paid to spend on the film in order to write a review for the Sarasota-Herald Tribune -

"...the sad, harsh truth is that two hours spent inside a Trappist monastery turns out to be achingly dull. Watching this film, we feel like fidgety children at Mass, kicking the pews and sending our mind out to wander in a failing attempt to make time pass faster."

Squirming and fidgeting in his seat like an eight-year-old forced to sit through Mass - that sums up Mr. Lloyd's experience with Of Gods and Men . A brief perusal of his recent film reviews will demonstrate that Mr. Lloyd instead enjoys himself giving higher ratings to the likes of The Hangover 2 , Bridesmaids , Paul , Arthur , and once again, Love and Other Drugs . And such is our modern day culture. Most Americans will not see Of Gods and Men . Many who do see it will only see the first 10 minutes or so before giving up on it. This is reflective of the times we live in. It says something about who we are.

So why should I spend the first half of this thing going over negative reviews of the film? Because I believe the inability to watch and think about something like this is important to notice. Of Gods and Men forces the viewer to ask oneself a couple hard questions. These are ideas and questions no one wants to think about anymore. What is your life for ? Is there anything that exists out there that is worth dying for? If so, have you found it? Just because something is worth dying for, does that mean that you would want to die? If you can avoid hardship, pain, and suffering by not living or dying for something greater than yourself, is it worth it? Is it ever your own decision to become a martyr? Is dying for something that results from trying to obey God even fair or just? It sure doesn't seem like it, does it? Are vows and commitments worth keeping, even at the very highest price? Why? The list of questions we could talk about together after watching this film are almost endless.

Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth will proclaim your praise ...
Save us, Lord, while we are awake,
guard us while we are asleep;
that, awake, we may watch with Christ,
and, asleep, may rest in His peace.

- Trappist Hymn excerpt

Of Gods and Men is a film about men wrestling and agonizing over these sorts of questions. It's a film about how two completely different cultures can still be transcended by certain universal truths about God and man. It's a film that demonstrates how human beings can love each other. And it's a film that shows a group of characters suddenly confronted with danger and hardship. Why not retreat in order to fight the good fight another day? Why not leave in order to serve other people in a different place? That is the more logical thing to do, according to some people who've seen the film.

One of the largest questions that those who do watch this film will ask each other is whether the decision facing the monks consisted of one of martyrdom or suicide. If you know you will likely be killed in a place, and you deliberately make the decision to go to or stay in that place - are you committing suicide? Can that decision be Godly? How can you make a decision that will likely kill you and still desire to live? These are topics upon which, if you listen closely, the main characters start teaching each other. Is suffering a virtue? No. Does weakness and suffering have any value? Maybe, but ought we to strive or look for weakness or suffering? No. At least, not in the opinions of these guys in this story.

While a couple of the younger monks agonize over the idea of martyring themselves, the leader of the group, Christian, may be the one with the heaviest burden to bear. He loves these brothers who have banded together with him, and his influence and leadership could directly result in their deaths. Each character is wrestling with the idea of being willing to die for what he believes in and whether that possible death is really necessary. It's a possibility that worries some more than others. But Christian is wrestling with the idea of leading this entire group of men to their deaths (perhaps unnecessarily) because of their willingness (even if occasionally contentiously) to follow his example. That is not a burden you would want to wrestle with. Sacrificing yourself is one thing; sacrificing the lives of those closest to you is another thing altogether.

How much of a burning flame do you have to possess in your heart in order to be capable of looking a deathly decision like this in the eyes?

Some of the critics who consider the main characters of Of Gods and Men illogical would say that these guys were, in fact, virtually making the decision to commit suicide. Isn't martydom a type of suicide? - it is, after all, something you do have to choose, right?

In his classic apologetic work, Orthodoxy , G.K. Chesterton wrote -

"Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world ... The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer."

If the Trappists' decision to die was, as it was in the eyes of a nonbelieving world, a decision for indirect suicide, then their decision was worse than the simplistic decision of the Jihadist terrorists to kill them in the first place. But, if you share some of the Christian beliefs of these men, there is a very important difference here. Call it a paradox if you will, but it's an important distinction nonetheless. Chesterton continues -

"Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live ...

The Christian attitude to the martyr and the suicide was not what is so often affirmed in modern morals. It was not a matter of degree. It was not that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that the self-slayer in exaltation fell within the line, the self-slayer in sadness just beyond it. The Christian feeling evidently was not merely that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far. The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at opposite ends of heaven and hell ...

Here it was that I first found that my wandering feet were in some beaten track. Christianity had also felt this opposition of the martyr to the suicide: had it perhaps felt it for the same reason? Had Christianity felt what I felt, but could not (and cannot) express - this need for a first loyalty to things, and then for a ruinous reform of things? Then I remembered that it was actually the charge against Christianity that it combined these two things which I was wildly trying to combine. Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still."


In other words, the difference between martyrdom and suicide was one of the things that led G.K. Chesterton to Christianity in the first place. One exhibits a fierce love of life, the other exhibits a hatred of life. Some monks are ascetics. Trappist monks really aren't. If there is one thing the director, Xavier Beauvois, gets right in this film it is proving to the audience that his characters love the pleasures of living life. They break out the wine and the music because they consider both gifts of God's creation. They walk, farm, work and meditate under huge looming skies and in that breath-taking scenery because doing so draws them closer to their Creator. It is no coincidence Trappist ales are world famous, and that it is Trappist monasteries that produce ales that are specifically tied to and named after the local places in which they are brewed. If you don't think classical music is moving, watch how these men, sitting still and silent in a room, let their spirits be led and moved by the simple composition of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake .

Turns out I haven't really explained much here other than ask lots of questions and quote various opinions. But how many films actually make you ask questions? Not many. How many films make you think and reflect weeks and months after seeing the film? Very few. But this is one of them and I can't recommend it enough. It is not boring, if you're willing to sit still. Neither is it a film about the evil of Islam, like other "Christian" movie reviews would like you to think. Instead, it's a thoughtful reflection upon one practical example of what it meant for a few men in their own human attempts to follow Christ. Reflecting upon how to follow the example of Him who paid the price that He paid for us is a dangerous and adventurous thing to reflect upon. It can lead in alarming directions, but directions that point towards the one thing that matters. And, even more importantly, point it out to others.

This is the night
The immense night of origins
And nothing exists except love
Except love which now begins…
God has prepared the earth like a cradle
For his coming from above.

This is the night
The happy night of Palestine
And nothing exists except the Child
Except the Child of life divine
By taking flesh of our flesh
God our desert did refresh
And made a land of boundless spring.

- Trappist Christmas Hymn excerpt

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