Of Gods and Men (2010, in Arabic and French with English subtitles)
On the night of 26-27 March 1996, seven Trappist monks from the monastery at Tibhirine in Algeria were kidnapped by Islamist militants during the Algerian Civil War. Two months later, on 23 May, their kidnappers reported in a communiqué that the monks had been killed on 21 May. On 31 May the Algerian government announced that the monks’ heads had been discovered but their bodies were never found. Ever since, controversy has raged about the kidnappings and killings. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) claimed responsibility for both, but the then French Military Attaché reported that the monks had been accidentally killed by an Algerian army helicopter during an attack on a guerrilla position, then beheaded after their death to make it appear as though the GIA had killed them. It has also been claimed by conspiracy theorists that the GIA cell responsible had been infiltrated by the Algerian secret service.
Whatever the truth behind this appalling tragedy, what lies at the heart of this film is the rhythm and witness of this contemplative community in an Islamic country, 34 years after independence from France, in the increasingly tense final months before the murders. The names of the monks are real and, while the screenplay draws on documents, including the journal of the prior, Christian de Chergé, the characterisations of necessity are fictional.
Having spent a few weeks ten years ago living with a community of Trappist monks, I can say that the film captures with astonishing accuracy the austerity of their way of life. At times I felt that I was watching a documentary. Overall there was a serenity permeating this film arising from the community’s prayer life and its closeness to the villagers among whom they live and for whom they provide an outpatients’ clinic. And yet, paradoxically, this serenity is mixed with an underlying tension; we, the audience, know how this is going to end.
When the local chief of police offers the community protection, following the murder of Croatian construction workers nearby, there is dissent among the community about the Prior’s decision to refuse it without first consulting the other members. The community is divided over whether to leave or continue to serve the villagers. One monk in particular has his faith in God severely tested as he contemplates the fate that could be befall him by remaining in the village. By the end of the film, however, the discord has dissipated and all agree by a show of hands to stay. This was for me the most contrived part of the film, although others have been critical of the “Last Supper” scene which is its climax. The community gathered in the refectory is served with red wine by Bro Luc, the physician among them, while overture from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays on a cassette player in a corner of the room. At first this scene struck me as out of place until it gradually dawned on me that we could read into the expression on the monks’ faces their different emotions, encompassing resignation, fear, joy, anticipation regarding what the future might bring.
There is a suggestion in a couple of scenes that perhaps the Algerian government was complicit in the killings. Bro Christian is asked by the military to identify the body of a dead terrorist the local garrison, the leader of a group that had visited the monastery on Christmas Eve, seeking medical attention for injured comrades. The officer in charge is angered first of all by Christian’s implied criticism of the treatment of the man’s body and then by the silent prayer the Prior offers for the dead man. Later, as the monks are in their chapel, a military helicopter threateningly circles the monastery, almost drowning out the singing of a psalm.
An added bonus on the DVD is a short documentary featuring interviews with members of the monks’ families, a Cistercian monk who represented the Vatican at their funeral, and a priest who each month visits the now deserted monastery. This feature ends abruptly, perhaps indicating a fault on my disc, but before it did so, I was interested to discover that the Carmelite Seminary in Paris which Christian had attended has now established an exhibition in the room he formerly occupied. One wall consists of the testimonial he left with his family two years before the tragedy, to be opened in the event of his death. This testimony is reproduced on pages 10 and 11 of this issue.
This is a powerful film and one that does not give its audience a suffocatingly pious depiction of religion. The ‘F’ word even creeps in a moment of irritation between two monks on kitchen duty. I have not heard such language used when visiting monasteries, but it served its purpose in showing that even monks can sometimes speak out of anger. Above all, this film is a testament to hope, one that invites reflection and involves us in a bit of heart-wrenching in its portrayal of the healing power of faith and community.
This text has originally been published in the Quest Bulletin no. 62 (Winter 2012)