I finally had opportunity to see the recent French film Des Hommes et Des Dieux (translated, and transposed, into English as Of Gods and Men). I noted this film a few weeks ago when it first appeared in theatres. It tells the true story of a small group of Cistercian monks who were killed in Algeria by jihadists in 1996.
It is an extraordinary film from start to finish, and it has justly been winning praise from all quarters. The film is focused on the period in which jihadist violence was increasing in Algeria, and on the monks’ earnest and sometimes agonizing deliberations about whether to stay or to leave the country. The screenwriter has allowed not only considerations of safety and human solidarity to complicate the decision, but the monks also wrestle with the nature of the monastic vocation and the demands of Christian discipleship. Indeed, I cannot think of another film in which sound and serious Christian theology has been integrated so naturally into an intensely dramatic and emotionally compelling story, without any trace of didacticism. The screenplay had to navigate a minefield of political correctness and oversimplification; that it succeeded as well as it did is something of a miracle. There were a few bold decisions made by the director, especially in one crucial scene, that might divide opinion, but personally I thought they worked. The actors do full justice to the material. In short, it is a film of high moral beauty (and cinematic beauty too, not incidentally).
A few years ago I wrote some notes about a book, The Monks of Tibhirine, by John W. Kiser, that tells the same story as this film. (The linked post includes spoilers.)
A documentary about monks has recently been made by Salt + Light Television, the Catholic television station in Canada. This film, called This Side of Eden, is about the lives of the monks of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. I have been to this monastery myself, many years ago. (In fact, it was the first monastery that I ever visited.) I have not seen the film myself, though I would like to do so. Fr. Raymond de Souza saw an advance screening, and he liked it. Apparently it has recently aired (or will soon air) on both Salt + Light and EWTN. Has anyone here seen it?
This is the trailer. It is nice to see so many young monks.
Finally, on Easter Sunday the programme 60 Minutes aired a segment about the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. Television cameras are generally not allowed on the island – it has been twenty years since the last crew was invited – so this was a rare glimpse into the spiritual heartland of Orthodox Christianity. I found it fascinating, quite respectful, and, as is often the case with 60 Minutes, candid. There were perhaps a few moments in which the “Golly gee” attitude that marred, for instance, Oprah’s forays into religious life was evident, but for the most part the interviews were well done, with a not inappropriate element of delighted curiosity.