Treat yourself in this final week of Advent to a viewing of Xavier Beauvois’ film, Of Gods and Men (starring Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale), the true story of the 1996 martyrdom by Islamic terrorists of six French Trappist monks in Algeria, and winner of the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
I had heard about this film for some while, but only in the past week did I get round to seeing it. I now rank it among the very best films I have ever seen. Next to great films that deal explicitly with the life of grace—A Man For All Seasons, The Passion of the Christ, Ushpizin, Into Great Silence, The Tree of Life—it stands without the least embarrassment. It may well be better than any of these.
I have had occasion before to quote the lines from Chekhov that Graham Greene so admires in his essay, “Subjects and Stories.” The best novelists, says Chekhov, “are realistic and paint life as it is, but because every line is permeated, as with a juice, by awareness of a purpose, you feel, besides life as it is, also life as it ought to be, and this captivates you.”
Greene goes to comment:
This description of an artist’s theme has never, I think, been bettered: we need not even confine it to the fictional form: it applies equally to the documentary film, to pictures in the class of Mr. Rotha’s Shipyard…or Mr. Wright’s Song of Ceylon: only in films to which Chekhov’s description applies shall we find the poetic cinema. And the poetic cinema—it is the only form worth considering.
Of Gods and Men must certainly be classed as poetic cinema. I think of the wonderful work done with the camera simply meditating upon the expressive faces of the monks as they exhibit fear, anger, or peace; the beautiful counterpoint achieved between the lines of the psalms chanted by the monks and the terrible ordeal they are going through; the unsentimental but deeply moving portrayals of their anguished prayer, their kinship with the Islamic denizens of the town in which their monastery is located, and ultimately, their heroic deaths. Of the many brilliant decisions made by Beauvois in this film, not least is the one to let the final act of martyrdom occur “off stage.”
There is one scene with a monk alone in his cell that I believe may give us the most truthful image in cinema history of a soul manifesting his love for God in prayer.
Poetic, too, are the reflections of the monks revealed sometimes in voice-over, such as the luminous paradox: “It is in poverty, failure and death that we advance towards [God].” Or in the hope divulged in the abbot’s final testament, in which he voices his desire to “immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them.”
For helping us, too, contemplate our brothers and sisters from this Divine perspective, we are all in Beauvois’ debt. He has made a beautiful work of art.