Few people would expect a film that beautifully articulates both the sacrifice and security of life in Christ to come out of France, one of the world's most secular nations. They'd probably be even more surprised to hear that the French made it an enormous commercial and critical hit and selected it as their country's official submission for this year's Academy Awards. (That Oscar voters declined to give it even a nomination throws an unflattering light of comparison on the judgment of our own film industry elite.)
Based on events that took place in Algeria between 1993 and 1996, Of Gods and Men follows of a group of Cistercian monks as the country they have served in for decades is ravaged by Islamic insurgents. Instead of fleeing back to France and safety, as nearly all their compatriots are doing, the brothers decide to stay and honor the commission they believe God has given them.
Rather like the monastic life embraced by its protagonists, the first third of the film moves quietly, eschewing nearly all theatrical flourishes. We are absorbed into the ebb and flow of the monastery-praying, singing, gardening, cleaning, selling honey at the market. Director Xavier Beauvois takes such care depicting the monks' simple routines that, when the disturbing signs come, they tear through the peace like a knife through canvas.
In the clinic where they care for the community's sick, Brother Luc (veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale) hears of a woman being stabbed on a bus for not wearing a veil. Later, terrified villagers come running to the monastery with reports of terrorists slaughtering Croatian construction workers (these scenes along with brief language earn the film a PG-13 rating). It doesn't take long before groups of armed men start blocking the roads, executing anyone who doesn't meet their standard of Muslim piety.
Even when the terrorists are at the abbey door, the order's leader, Prior Christian (Lambert Wilson), is stalwart in his resolve to remain. Other brothers, however, display a more relatable fear and struggle, both individually and as a group, to discern God's will. Actually, discern is not quite the right word; what they struggle with is obeying it. This is particularly poignant in the character arc of Brother Cristophe (Olivier Rabourdin) who begins the story in anger and rebellion, is brought to his knees seeking divine comfort, and, having received it, emerges ready to accept the cup he has been given.
Perhaps it is because Henri Quinson, a monk who knew some of the protagonists, consulted on every aspect of this film that the insight of a deeply biblically educated believer seems to touch everything, allowing us to see doctrine in action. Prior Christian argues that they should stay for those they serve because "love endures all things," and Brother Luc explains he is not afraid of terrorists because in Christ he has freedom from death. "So make way for the free man," he says with an exuberance that perfectly captures the absolute security of salvation.
Despite its violent subject matter, the right audience will recognize Of Gods and Men as a joyous film, far more concerned with things noble and lovely than savage. From the holy songs that make up the movie's soundtrack to a haunting scene where the brothers share a sort of last supper while listening to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," both sorrow and celebration passing over their faces, the movie urges us to set our minds on heavenly things.
I have no doubt that if Of Gods and Men were an American movie, Christians would be pouring into theaters to see it. Don't let the subtitles scare you off; few films offer believers a more uplifting and accurate affirmation of their faith.
Henri Quinson's life could be a movie in itself. At 28, he was living in a posh Paris apartment and managing a $15 million portfolio as a foreign exchange trader for a large French bank. Then Merrill Lynch tried to lure him to London with promises of an even higher salary. Rather than choose between the two employers, Quinson did the one thing his colleagues never expected. He walked away from banking, gave away his assets, and became a monk in a Cistercian-Trappist order in the French Alps.
Six years later, Quinson's life took another dramatic turn when he returned to city life to found a parish in a low-income immigrant district of Marseille, tutoring neighborhood children so that, through education, they might integrate into mainstream society.
His experience with the monastic life and his work in a predominantly Muslim area uniquely prepared Quinson to serve as advisor on a film about seven French monks who were murdered when they refused to leave their ministry in Algeria during an Islamic uprising in 1996.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its boldly Christian viewpoint and subject matter, Of Gods and Men has been an enormous success in France. Not only was it No. 1 at the French box office for three weeks in a row, it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival last year and best picture at the Cesar awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars). As it rolls out to U.S. cities over the next few months, Quinson, who knew four of the seven murdered monks and translated the book the movie was based on, hopes viewers here will be equally inspired by their story.
Q: What did your role as the monastic consultant for the film involve? It involved everything. I had to review scenarios, make sure they weren't making any historical mistakes, and I also had to fill in the gaps in the story. For example 13 times in the script the monks had to pray, so questions would come up like "What do they do, do they sing, what do they sing?" I actually chose the different hymns and songs to connect with different parts of the story.
Then when I thought that something was either out of line or not as good as something that the monks had said themselves, I would make suggestions. I had to rewrite some of the dialogue about martyrdom, for example.
Q: Speaking of the dialogue, it's sparse, but theologically weighty. Did you have to expound on the meaning of some of it for the actors and filmmakers? I did. It was a difficult job because some of the actors would say, "I'm an atheist." They weren't really against the Christian faith but they knew nothing about Christianity. So for them it was really very educational. It's difficult to describe but it was a little bit like lobbying. For two months I was with the actors every day-I had breakfast with them, lunch with them, dinner with them. So I did a lot of praying, talking, and in the end everyone really started connecting with these monks, and so really ended up connecting with God. I don't think you could act in this movie without in some way coming into contact with the One these men were giving their lives to.
And in my opinion I was greatly helped by God Himself. For example, I was against an early end of the movie where the Algerians find the heads of the monks. I thought it was in poor taste. I thought the families would find it too harsh. Why would we end our story with images of hatred, fear, death, and despair? I thought we should stick to the monks' point of view. Then, the day we filmed the abduction of the monks, it snowed, and the camera captured them disappearing into snow and fog. The way they walked into the cloud of fog, it actually reminded me of the cloud over the tent of the presence of God in the Old Testament, as if the brothers disappeared into God, which is for me the true story.
Well, [director Xavier Beauvois] called me and said, "Henri, I'm going to leave the ending of this movie to the One who I believe is conducting this movie which I believe is God"-that's the word he used-and he said, "that scene [the scene in the fog] will be the end of the movie. It was God sent."
Q: When it comes to Islam and Christianity, people talk about a clash of cultures, but here the cultures worked together well, it was really a clash of faiths. I've heard people say about this movie that it is the story of two extremes. One is to kill people in the name of God and in the process commit suicide. In the case of the monks, it's pretty clear these men did not seek death or martyrdom, though they were not killed for nothing. They actually have something to say to our world today, and it's really about this question of who God is and what god are we talking about?
In the movie Prior Christian de Chergé says we're going to do everything we can to avoid dying because we don't believe in a God of death. But dying is the risk we take out of love. So the important thing was to show that if these are two extremes, well, one is the extreme of love.
Christians need to understand the only way out of this clash of civilizations is to live out our faith in a convincing and intelligent way and try to build relationships with real people. Some people say you can have a dialogue with Islam. No! You can't have a dialogue with theories or theology. You can only come into a relationship with a person.
Q: How does this model of relationship play out in a modern, secular culture, like, for example, France? I think in Europe people still have somewhere back in their memories religious wars, and this new violence coming from Muslim terrorism only reinforces for them the idea that religion is violent, is against intelligence, is a thing of the past.
What we need to do is explain anew what the Christian faith is all about. There are different gods and that's actually pretty clear if you understand the behavior of different people who refer to God. There is the loving God of Christianity. Jesus' teaching is to love everyone, and that love does not kill other people. Some people worship a violent god, but ours tells us we can be free from our sins because of His love.
But it [the disinterest in Christianity] is starting to change in France because when nothing is left except running after money or women, at some point you discover that maybe the gospel is not a bad thing. It's starting with the intellectual circles here in France, which is to me quite startling but very interesting.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from this movie? If they could discover the loving God I discovered when I was 20, that would be the best thing I could hope for.