Of Gods and Men
It sometimes amazes me what film can do. The orchestration of what we see and hear in the dark room, and the range and depth of emotion that it can elicit is remarkable to me. The opening score from The Sound of Music and the enormously complicated helicopter sequence that swoops down to a joyously-singing Julie Andrews atop the Alps makes me tingle and tear up every time. And I don’t even like that film. But the combination of visuals and music strike a chord in me (please, forgive the pun). Perhaps it’s chemical.
Similarly, there are moments in Of Gods and Men that move me deeply, in a way that only cinema can.
The film is based on the true story of a group of Cistercian monks in Algeria during an Islamic fundamentalist revolt that evolved into civil war. The jihadists threaten the monks, then the local army bullies them. But, the monks have a nearly idyllic relationship with the Muslims in the village below their monastery.
They assist them medically, share produce and advice as neighbors do, and when they have to decide whether to return to the safety of France or to stay and face probable torture and death at the hands of the fundamentalists, their decision is mostly influenced by the needs of the people in the village, who are caught between two warring and idealistic factions.
Their decision is also affected by their own fear of death, the depth of their faith in the mystery of their god’s will, and the value of martyrdom versus cowardice. They discuss this decision as adults, as serious men, in a very real world that has turned against them. They debate and they pray.
The moment that will stay with me forever occurs near the end, when the monks have concluded that they must stay, even though they will eventually be taken and murdered. As they sit around a table eating their evening meal, Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the doctor who runs the clinic for the village, brings two bottles of wine and a cassette tape, which he puts into the ancient tape player on the shelf. “The Grand Theme” from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays as the camera pans and then slowly cuts from face to magnificent face.
The acting and direction are so completely fulfilled and impeccably accurate; the generosity of spirit of the men is so profound, that, as an audience member, I found myself swelling to an emotion that I do not have words for, but that fills me with the greatest regard for humanity. The miracle of cinema is that the music can reach us just at the moment when the camera takes us so close to purely human faces, and that actors so magnificent can be there to receive us and carry us through terrifying and brutal times to the safety of art.
Praise art and the director for holding that moment, so that we may bear witness to it.
Of Gods and Men opens Friday, March 25 at the Downer Theatre. Remind yourself that film is sometimes more than entertainment–go see it.