Abby Ohlheiser: Of Gods and Men (122 minutes, 2010), a new film by Xavier Beauvois, opened last Friday in Los Angeles and New York (at Sunshine, show times are here) after a brief run at the New York Film Festival in the fall. Winner of the second-place prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it is brilliant, in the way that Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc is brilliant. It’s a film about experienced faith. Part Passion, part Tragedy, it shares a sense of glimpsing the beatific in the face of martyrdom.  But, like Dreyer’s film, it transcends its Christian trail markers.

Of Gods follows the last few months of a small group of Trappist monks at the Tibhirine Monastery in Algeria.  Seven of the men were kidnapped — by local Muslim forces or by a fearful government struggling to keep order, no one knows. The monk’s heads were later found, their bodies were not. 

Don’t let the trailer fool you: the film moves at the pace of the monks’ lives. It gets into their rhythms and makes you feel like you’re watching something holy.  With the exception of Swan Lake, which is played during a Last Supper, the only music is the monks’ daily four hours of chanting.

The monks are French, and their role in the poor, mostly Muslim Algerian village they live near is genuine but paternalistic. The monks, not least because of their free medical clinic, serve as the backbone of the community.   Neither the Algerian government nor the Islamist rebels want them there – their only allies are their neighbors. When the monastery is visited by a group of rebels seeking medicine on Christmas day, their leader asks for the Pope. The audience I saw the movie with laughed, but it’s not a stupid question. And it’s the only moment in this film when we’re reminded of the power of the Church behind the monastery – a Church that placed the monks in this volatile area.

As the monks lives become increasingly imperiled, over several months, they must decide: stay or go? Each man asks it alone, but in the end, their attachments and convictions are too strong to permit them to leave.  As the film progresses, as death becomes more threatening, the men become works of art. A scene shows one monk with his head rested upon the chest of a painting of Christ.  Others’ faces freeze in a series of expressions – joy, anguish, fear, bliss – as they sit around the dinner table indulging in wine on their last night together.  They are silent, but they move through these emotions (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance?) together, in fellowship. 

Of Gods and Men is also a film about Islam, and its argument unfolds in its own time as the monks come to terms with their fate.  Through the monastery’s prior emerges an argument for what Islam is, and what it is not. It’s a theology of interfaith coexistence with none of the schlocky superficiality of a bumper sticker.  Go see it, and hear.

Watch The Revealer for a full review of Of Gods and Men in the next few weeks.