Madeleine Davies

Of Gods and Men

In Films on March 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Living as we do in a largely secular society, martyrdom is an act that feels distant, frightening, alien. Dying for your beliefs is the stuff of classical drama, an act that has always posed difficult questions about morality and motives. In our horror of death and doubt about what lies beyond it, martyrdom can feel like a sort of stubborn nihilism, a morbid denial of the beauty of life on earth.

It remains a fascinating subject for film makers, but often in a historical context (A Man for All Seasons tells the story of Thomas More whose refusal to renounce his catholic faith results in his execution at the stake) or as an exploration of the dangers of extremism (Three Lions, Chris Morris’ black comedy about an inept gang of suicide bombers, presented its antiheros as tragically misguided, young men who ultimately falter before the enormity of the sacrifice asked of them).

Yet throughout the world people continue to die for their faith. This week Pakistan’s only Christian minister was assassinated after opposing the country’s blasphemy laws.

“As a Christian, I believe Jesus is my strength,” said Shahbaz Bhatti on a recent visit to Canada. “He has given me a power and wisdom and motivation to serve suffering humanity. I follow the principles of my conscience, and I am ready to die and sacrifice my life for the principles I believe.”

Such principled faith, lived out with integrity and courage to the very end, is incredible to us. But how to explain it?

What is clever about Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois’ film about a group of monks who choose to remain in an Algerian monastery despite the immediate threat of attack by Islamist terrorists, is that it combines depictions of the beauty of life and the longing to hold on to it with an exploration of the faith that can sustain people willing to sacrifice it.

Beauvois presents the monk’s choice as an agonising one. “I did not come here to commit mass suicide” intones one brother, who is later shown in his cell beseeching a seemingly absent God for succour, in an echo of Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. While the scenes in which the group collectively discuss their decision to stay or go collectively are more measured and rational, the director concentrates heavily on the brothers’ individual meditations, those dark nights of the soul in which we grope for comfort and meaning.

In one such scene, Christian, the leader of the group, publicly confident that leaving is not an option, stares out at a lake, his face a mask of sorrow, watching while a formation of geese flock across the sky. What is God showing him? The necessity of flight or the importance of unity? In an earlier scene he tells a villager that his brothers are birds on a branch, ripe for the picking. She reframes the image, insisting that they are the branch on which the villagers, the birds, are balanced.

While illustrating the asceticism of life at the monastery, Beauvois makes it clear that the sacrifice is enormous – the monks contemplate losing a life of colour, joy and fulfilment. “We will do everything to avoid death”, stresses Christian. These are men who want to live, who remember Christ’s promise that he came to bring life and life to the full.

This is a beautiful film about living in the valley of the shadow of death and the mental contortions that take place as the monks make their choice to traverse it, with God at their side. Within the course of a day it is possible, the film shows, to move from a terrifying crisis of faith to an overwhelming love for a God who envelops, surrounds, embraces. Nothing about their decision is easy; there is no suggestion that they seek notoriety or canonisation. At one point the monks read Matthew 16 in which Jesus says that those who want to hang on to the lives will lose it, while those that give it up for his sake will save it. It is a hugely challenging passage and its application appears to weigh heavily on the monks listening to it, illustrating that even those who have devoted their lives to studying and obeying the word of God struggle with its difficult truths.

The other key reference in the film is Psalm 23 – The Good Shepherd . “You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies” wrote King David. “You honor me by anointing my head with oil.” In one of the last scenes of the film, a reimagining of the last supper, we see what it means to sit at this feast and cling to the truth that love – of men and of God – nourishes and sustains in the darkest of nights.

  1. Such a thoughtful review of a really interesting film. Hope you write an article on “Tree of Life” next, as that’s in clear need of a religious de-construction!

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