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.
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.
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.