Teenagers go through all kinds of phases. Some become obsessed with cars. Others are consumed by sports or music or the opposite sex — you name it. I went through a monk phase.
Off and on for years, I lived in a monastery by the Charles River just outside Boston. It was great, like stepping into another century, or onto a different planet. Which is why I make it a point never to miss a good monk movie. Not like it’s, you know, tough to keep up.
Of Gods and Men is a very good monk movie. Directed and cowritten by French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois, the picture is loosely based on the true story of a group of Trappist monks who were kidnapped by Muslim terrorists in 1996 and later assassinated. Don’t worry: By telling you that, I’m doing nothing to diminish the experience of the movie. It’s not about what happened to these unusual men, but about why they allowed it to.
The first half of the picture is devoted to a portrait of life in the tranquil Cistercian monastery. The filmmaker introduces us to eight men of God and gradually immerses us in the rituals of their daily life. The setting is a mountainous region of Algeria where the population is overwhelmingly Islamic. The monks are French and Catholic but have succeeded in becoming a beloved part of the community.
The members of the order spend time in silent prayer, till their garden, sing somewhat ominous hymns, tend to their bees and share spartan meals around an old wooden table. Their mission is not to convert but to serve the sick and the poor, which complicates matters later on. Brother Luc is played by the marvelous Michael Lonsdale. He operates a clinic in the village and tends to dozens, sometimes more than 100 neighbors a day, though he’s on his last legs himself.
Played by Lambert Wilson, Brother Christian has been elected by the others to act as prior, or leader. When news of atrocities committed by fundamentalist rebels reaches the monastery, it falls to him, first, to gauge the threat to the immediate area; and then, when local blood begins to flow, to get consensus on the issue of staying or leaving and surviving to serve another day. The second half of the picture examines the group’s thought process and the perplexing decision to which it leads.
The monastery in the film in many ways resembles the one where I stayed — a chief difference being that mine had a huge organ in the chapel on which I once pounded out “Louie Louie” alone at midnight. The monks themselves were a whole different kettle of fish. Had danger approached, they wouldn’t have thought twice; seats would have been reserved on the first flight out of Logan. We shared spartan meals around an old wooden table, but we also went to movies in the city and enjoyed Brother George’s jazz collection on a state-of-the-art stereo in the basement.
One by one, each of the men in Beauvois’ thoughtful, sublimely shot and ultimately haunting movie resolves to remain, come what may. They’ve given their lives to God, they reason, and God has guided them to this place to care for these people. They fear for their own safety but consider it their sacred duty to transcend that fear as an act of solidarity with the Islamic villagers.
One can argue with that logic — how many more people might the Trappists have helped had they lived? At the same time, there’s no denying the courage it required to follow through with the decision. The brothers share a last supper. Lonsdale fills glasses with wine and slips a cassette of Tchaikovsky in a tape player. The director pans from face to face as their expressions morph from earthly bliss to comradely smiles to mounting dread.
By the end of the sequence, the full weight of martyrdom can be read in each man’s eyes. That look and Beauvois’ film are equally unforgettable.