Of Gods and Men

In Films by Brock Bourgase

Trappist monks who lived in the monastery of Tibhirine existed in harmony with Muslims in the mountains of Algeria until a civil war erupted in the 1990s. Seven monks were captured by the Armed Islamic Group and were killed two months later, although the exact circumstances of their deaths remain unclear. Director Xavier Beauvois revisits the tragic events in his film, Of Gods and Men, chronicling how the monks debated whether or not to remain in North Africa amidst rising tensions between Christians and Muslims.

The monks weigh the issue thoroughly, understanding that although they play no role in the conflict, their position makes them symbolic targets for Islamic rebel groups looking to lash out at a government cracking down on opposition forces. Many groups, frustrated with the failing economic fortunes of Algeria wished to overthrow the government and install a new regime based on Sharia. Although the local citizens appreciate the monks because of the work they do to better the community and promote public health, radicals see them as non-believers.

Beauvois adopts a deliberate pace throughout the film, reflecting the agonizing decision that the monks must make. Fixed shots emphasize characters who are pondering their future. Quiet scenes with minimal dialogue accurately portray the monastic lifestyle and highlight moments of reflection. Gregorian chanting (all of the actors were required to take a month of lessons before principal photography began) is a remnant of a way of life that has mostly disappeared.

The barren mountains that surround the monastery seem to be an unlikely source of violence but viewers know that a tragic end is inevitable. As the monks argue about their future, they come closer together and support each other. They debate the meaning of the life that they have chosen and how they can help mediate the conflict. What is more important: themselves or their vows to help others?

Over the years, the monks have lived a principled life, rejecting modern comforts in favour of a simple life of faith, hope and charity. They have a chance to gain the protection of the local government and military forces but decline because the appearance of corruption would damage their impartial reputation.

The Trappist order discourages one from exercising their own will instead of the will of God and the monks remain true to this. Even as danger becomes imminent, they choose to leave their fate in the hands of God. They could have saved themselves but chose to continue their lifetime of commitment, to their faith and each other. ***