On Saturday, we watched the film Of Gods And Men, or ‘Des hommes et des dieux’ to give it its original title. There are times when I’m in the mood for a serious film, and times when I would rather watch something light and fluffy. I wasn’t sure that I was in the right frame of mind on Saturday for a serious film about a group of Cistercian monks in Algeria, who were kidnapped by fundamentalist terrorists during the Algerian Civil War in 1996 and disappeared. However, I got completely caught up in this beautiful film and felt very glad to have seen it.
The film documents real events, but because not all of the details of the events depicted are known, there is inevitably some artistic license taken. However, it is an extraordinary and very moving story. The group of monks lived in a monastery deep in the Algerian countryside. They lived a simple and rather hard life, producing most of what they needed themselves through farming (according to the Cistercian rule) and providing help for the surrounding (Muslim) community through basic healthcare, assistance with completing forms and so on. The villagers helped them with their agricultural work and the monks attended celebrations and events in the village. It was clear that there was great affection and a deep mutual respect between the French Catholic monks and their Algerian Muslim neighbours. Their leader, Christian, is seen reading the Quran, seemingly in order to understand the beliefs of his neighbours better, but also because he values it on its own merits. It was also clear that while their religious customs were different, they shared a great deal in common: apart from anything else, they all lived physically hard lives in relative poverty.
A great deal of the beginning of the film deals with their everyday lives, performing tasks around the monastery, ploughing and sowing their crops, tending to the sick in the little clinic and so on. These tranquil moments were really beautifully captured, often accompanied by the monks’ own chanting at their services. Then they start to get reports of trouble caused by fundamentalists: Croatian workers were murdered and a woman was stabbed on a bus for failing to wear a veil.
They realise that trouble may be coming their way, and in the pivotal scene of the film, the terrorists enter the monastery on Christmas Eve, demanding that the elderly Brother Luc should come with them to tend to their wounded men. Christian bravely stands up to them (while trembling and visibly frightened) and demands that they move outside the monastery walls with their guns. He explains that they do not have enough medical supplies for the villagers and that he will not allow them to take Brother Luc. He even quotes the Quran at the leader and explains that it is Christmas Eve. Amazingly, the leader seems to respect this, and shakes Christian’s hand, apologising for disturbing their worship. However, the monks know that this uneasy truce is unlikely to last.
They begin discussing whether they should stay or leave the monastery. At the beginning they are not all in agreement, but gradually as they discuss it with one another, and think deeply about it on their own, they do reach a unanimous decision, but they all struggle with it. One of the most touching aspects of the film is the monks’ sense of fraternity. While they spend a lot of time in silence, it is clear that they care deeply about one another: reaching an agreement is not just a practical or political matter, but important because they all desperately want to support their brothers.
There is a rather shocking moment (in the context of the film) where one of the younger monks snaps with the stress of the situation and swears at Brother Luc. Luc is clearly slightly shaken by the outburst, but he shrugs his shoulders and mutters to himself that the younger man is tired and stressed, and tells himself to let it go. I thought that it was a very telling moment, and indicated the tolerance and depth of accommodation that people living in such close quarters must have to show. There’s another scene near the end of the film which was unbearably moving. The monks are all gathered together for their evening meal. They share a couple of bottles of red wine (a very rare luxury) while listening to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with tears rolling down their cheeks, savouring the moment while fully aware that they might not get many more.
I really recommend this film, even if you think (as I did) that a film about monks is not for you. I think it is one of those films that will stay with me.