Birds on a Branch

‘Of Gods and Men’

As I watched Of Gods and Men, the mesmerizing fact-based French movie about the martyrdom of seven French Trappists in 1990s Algeria, the word “embedded” came to mind. In the past decade we have become familiar with this term in reference to the military practice of tucking a war reporter into a company of soldiers carrying out missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. While being kept from straying alone into danger or stumbling onto information that the military command might not want broadcast, the embedded journalist can gain an immediate, ineffaceable understanding of what the common soldier experiences.

In Of Gods and Men two kinds of embedding are at play. First, it’s clear that the monks of the monastery have so unstintingly offered their skills and resources (medicine, clothes, literacy) to a village in the Atlas Mountains that they have embedded themselves in the community. At the same time, that community has become indispensable to the spiritual life of the monks, for their service isn’t just a matter of duty but an offering to God.

Second, director and co-writer (with Etienne Comar) Xavier Beauvois embeds us in the lives of the monks by making us share their daily itinerary of work and prayer. Within the monastery walls we are treated to moments of stillness (prayer, study, sleep) as eloquent as the chanted prayers, and this hushed concentration seems to sustain the monks as they minister to the townspeople.

Interspersing civic bustle and monastic serenity are lengthy horizontal pans of the low mountains that encircle the monastery and village and from which terror will soon descend. These panning shots, constantly repeated throughout the film, hint at something within, perhaps beyond, nature that will outlast good and evil deeds, that will outlast politics and even religion. While the monks are trying to contemplate the Eternal, the Eternal seems to be contemplating them—before absorbing them.

The regularity of the monastery’s life is shattered when Algeria, once again, falls into civil war. Fundamentalist rebel-terrorists invade the area and slit the throats of some government-employed Croatian construction workers. The elected abbot of the monastery, Br. Christian, wonders if the monks are to be the next targets of fanatics who might consider the monastery an outpost of religious imperialism. A local governor offers to garrison the monastery but Br. Christian flatly rejects this. He doesn’t want his order associated with a corrupt government, nor does he wish to curtail the community’s fruitful routine. Having made this decision without consulting the other monks, he gets considerable static at the next chapter meeting.

The objections he faces are not flimsy. To court martyrdom is a sin of pride. Also, what good works can dead monks perform? Better to relocate and carry on their mission. Christian readily concedes the first point, but relocate? If the group has found its destiny right where it is, to leave would be self-betrayal. But Christian gives his fellows time to think matters over before taking the vote that will decide their destiny and draw Of Gods and Men toward its conclusion.

Having witnessed and felt the dailiness of the Atlas monastery before the coming of terror, we now observe the effects of living under the shadow of death: the tension that drives some of the brothers to bickering; the bewilderment of a pious Muslim elder who can’t understand how the terrorists can consider themselves true followers of Islam; the pleading of the villagers for the monks to stay on (“We are like birds on a branch,” one monk says to convey their undecided state. “No,” a local woman rejoins. “We are the birds. You monks are the branches”); the pressure from the government to leave, because the monks won’t accept military protection and the state doesn’t want to be embarrassed by their slaughter; the odd, possibly illusory feeling of hope after the terrorists raid the monastery and their leader, seeming to recognize the monks’ sincerity, offers Br. Christian a handshake of respect.

When I first heard about this movie, I thought it would be dialogue-heavy, with plenty of debate among the monks and between monks and terrorists, monks and government officials, etc. But no. Although the dialogue is excellent and often epigrammatic, most of the film’s eloquence is in its imagery, and the gestures and silences of its characters. Late in the story, there is a beautiful little scene (conveyed entirely in a long shot) in which the monastery car breaks down on a desolate highway and a group of local women walking home pauses to observe the emergency repair job. The women, genuinely interested and amused, offer advice, and when the motor revs up they give a tiny collective exhalation of relief as if they were watching a play come to a happy ending. It’s not a momentous scene, and its excision wouldn’t have changed the story, yet the film would have been poorer without it because it so neatly and humorously illustrates how the brethren appear to these rural Algerians: as benevolent, weirdly empowered emissaries from a distant world. That we know that the monks themselves, seeking simplicity, have actually stripped themselves of most of the world’s technology adds an ironic charm to the scene.

No viewer should look to Of Gods and Men for a lesson on the riven world of Islam or for a complicated critique of the church’s relationship with that world. A birthday celebration where Br. Christian and other monks listen reverently to a reading from the Qur’an demonstrates their capacity for interreligious understanding, but did they ever have a desire to make converts among the villagers they have bonded with? The movie doesn’t go into the matter.

Nor should any viewer expect a novelistic, psychological exploration of the characters. The past histories of the monks emerge only gradually in observation of present behavior and fragments of conversation, not in flashbacks or extended monologues. We feel the collective spirituality of the order—its fraying under pressure and its ultimate endurance—by reading the faces of the brothers and observing their figures against the light and darkness of the Algerian landscape, within the light and darkness of monastery rooms, and in hearing them chant, pray, quarrel, and offer one another support. All said, Of Gods and Men is closer to poetry than to novelistic storytelling.

But that poetry depends heavily on the acting. Every role has been well cast and every face evokes a personal history. The countenance of Jacques Herlin, who plays the oldest brother, Amédée, fascinatingly combines benevolence, keen intelligence, and a certain covert slyness—perhaps the face of a saint but definitely that of a survivor. As the monastery’s medic, Brother Luc, the great Michael Lonsdale turns his familiar ursine figure into a tower of crusty strength.

But the center of the drama is occupied by Lambert Wilson as Br. Christian, the most psychologically burdened of the brothers. Christian is a man of iron integrity, whose strength articulates itself by wrestling with a thousand compunctions. The task for the actor was to make the refined intellectuality manifest without suggesting self-righteousness. Watch this actor as he hesitates to take the proffered hand of the terrorist leader but finally shakes it with trepidation and hope in his face, and you see how completely Wilson fulfills the role. He was a dreamboat of the 1980s and, in the early ’90s, a contender to play James Bond (a Gallic Bond!) when Roger Moore retired (Timothy Dalton ended up getting the gig). Wilson rises so successfully to the occasion that we can hardly imagine anyone else playing Christian once the performance takes hold. Wilson renews one’s faith in the ability of actors to grow artistically.

The American release of Beauvois’s film during the Lenten season was apt. Of Gods and Men is filled with both the pain of Good Friday and the hope of Easter.

Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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