Near our house is a wonderful little establishment called the Herzliya Cinematheque. Its two cinemas fit snugly into the nook of a building in the city center of Herzliya, and as of August 2008, it has been serving rather generous portions of arthouse, foreign, and independent fare. A few of my most memorable experiences include watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 film Les Diaboliques (whose suspense and surprise ending makes The Usual Suspects look like an M. Night Shyamalan film) and Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator (which is undoubtedly amongst the greatest films of all time). Another highlight was finally being able to see (not to mention ogle) Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046 one after the other on the big screen.
On the first of April, the cinematheque emailed me its program for the month. After perusing the program and bemoaning the fact that I was not going to be in Israel for the screening of either Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar or Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, I saw Of Gods and Men listed. Somewhere, somehow, I had heard positive things about the film and so I decided, on little more than a whim, to buy a ticket for the Saturday night screening on April 2nd.
Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, is loosely based on the story of seven French Cistercian monks who were kidnapped and murdered by the The Groupe Islamiste Armée (GIA) in Tibhirine, Algeria in 1996. According to screenwriter Etienne Comar, “The film is more interested in capturing the spirit of the events and what was at stake in the community than in recounting the exact details of a historic reality.” It was this spirit and community, nourished by the genuineness of the monks’ Christian faith and so exquisitely communicated in the film’s form, that I found so deeply affecting.
Against a gorgeous Algerian landscape, the film’s exposition acquaints you with the daily rhythms of life in the community, drawing you from observation into an almost devotional participation. We work silently with the monks in their various chores, piling logs for firewood, washing the floors of the monastery, closing windows before rain. We join them in the “liturgy of the hours,” as a cappella singing fills and reverberates through a candlelit, otherwise silent chapel. We nurture relationships with the humble people outside the monastery walls, freely treating their ailments, attending and partaking in their cultural occasions of celebration, and talking with them about being in love.
The quietude of monastic life is soon interrupted by rumors and realities of Islamic extremist violence which directly confront the monks and attune them to the delicate balance between faith/doubt, hope/fear, and love/hate. Ultimately, they are brought to a place where the waters of belief wrestle with the shores of reality; where words like faith, hope, and love fight to take on real meaning or risk coming out hollow. A place which I believe Christianity ought to call home.
Of Gods and Men navigates the precariousness of this place with mastery. In content, the film by no means glosses over the humanity of the monks’ struggle and also portrays the mysterious power of their spirituality (without succumbing to the temptation of religious cliché in the process). In form, the cinematography is beautifully measured, allowing you to contemplate each moment and absorb its intricacies. And the use of almost exclusively diegetic sound ensures that your emotional attention is tied to what is happening within the story.
The film exerted such a great power upon me that I wept at various times while watching it. As I exited the theater into the Saturday night air, I somehow felt more whole and complete. Contrary to the escapism of Hollywood, Of Gods and Men pushed me closer, in meditative posture, to the flesh and bone of this earth and to what it means to truly love. The film continues to have a lasting impression on me, with various images and phrases of dialogue echoing in my mind like the monks’ hymns. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that I now include it as one of my most memorable cinematic experiences. I truly hope that you may soon count it as one of yours also.