I have just seen a remarkable, unforgettable film, Of Gods and Men (2010), about the final days of a small group of French Trappist monks in Algeria who were taken hostage by Islamic extremists and executed in 1996.
This sounds sensational and violent, yet the film is anything but. The viewer is given no historical context, just a series of quiet, eloquent scenes that unfold slowly, without soundtrack, as we watch these eight monks interact with and serve the villagers at a clinic and perform their daily ritual of work and prayer. Even the bell that is rung for prayer is silent. All we hear is the chant, as they pray in one memorable scene for the God of light to strengthen them as the darkness of inevitable death descends.
They have been warned to leave, have seen local terrorist activity, but have decided to stay in solidarity with the people they serve and in fidelity to their vows. As one of them says, "staying is as crazy as being a monk." They have given up everything already for God and so the coming of death, which forces them to examine their vocations and their lives, becomes the ultimate test of courage for these men of the desert, these Christian outsiders in a foreign land.
They do so with quiet dignity, some full of fear and wishing at first to leave for France, others resigned to stay. That they persist in their faithfulness to the village that depends on them as long as possible is a remarkable display of courage. "We must be brothers to all," the leader, Christian, says. And so they are, nurturing each other with a strong, gentle masculinity that is itself unusual to see on the screen while their continue to care for the Algerian villagers.
A key point made by Christian, the prior, is that they do not forget that the true Islam that they have come to know over the years is not a faith of hatred and violence.
The quiet ending, with the monks going off into the snow, avoids showing us their violent end. And so we are left in a reflective, prayerful mood, having come to know a band of brave men whose faith in God and whose faithfulness to their calling are inspirational.
I could not help but think of people like Etty Hillesum during the Holocaust, who willingly gave up the relative security of her Amsterdam apartment to join her fellow Jews when she knew it was only a matter of time before they would all be taken away, probably to death. Her final words, scribbled on a postcard, as she was taken away by train to Auschwitz: "We left the camp singing."
This is the spirit of hopeful courage that dominates the narrative of Of Gods and Men, filmed in Morocco and widely acclaimed in Europe. Being a French language film, it will unfortunately have limited viewers in the English-speaking world.
I was struck by the beauty of this film, by its silence, reminding me of that eloquent documentary about the monks of the Grand Chartruese, Into Great Silence, which is another example of film as a source of meditation and inspiration.