I saw “Of Gods and Men” again this afternoon. A friend of mine said as we were leaving the theater that the critical moment of the movie is a confrontation between a Trappist abbot (Lambert Wilson, left) and a Muslim terrorist early in the film. It shows, he said, that we are all, Christian or Muslim, equal before God. My first thought was, You’re wrong. My second thought was, Maybe not.
My heart wants to see “Of Gods and Men” as a “Catholic” film. The film is an inspiring vision of monastic brotherhood, and it is easy to get carried away with the many scenes of monastic life, especially when the eight monks pray in their tiny, humble chapel, where the tabernacle light glows an ember you’re blowing on. But to consider “Of Gods and Men” as “Into Great Silence” recast as an action film—in which heroic monks are pitted against villainous terrorists—would be wrong-headed. It can’t be what writer-director Xavier Beauvois intended.
The scene between abbot and terrorist is a striking one. A community of eight Trappists reside in a small monastery in an Algerian village, where they are a peaceful presence, and a therapeutic one. One of the eight, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is a doctor who sees as many as 150 villagers a day, despite limited medical supplies and his own ill health. A brutal early scene, the only one in the film with graphic violence, shows a terrorist group slaughtering Croatian highway workers, and we soon know that the terrorists will be a threat to the French monks as well. One night soon afterward, the terrorists enter the monastery uninvited and demand medicine for their wounded.
Because they are armed, the abbot, Christian, demands that the terrorists step outside to talk with him. In the yard in front of the monastery, though he is clearly frightened, Christian stands up to the militant, refusing to let the Islamists take Brother Luc or his medicines. By quoting the Quran, he manages to neutralize the Algerian militant’s aggressive behavior, and the two men end shaking hands. As the terrorist group backs away, Christian calls out that this night is “different from other nights.” The phrase suggests the Passover, but the night of the confrontation is in fact Christmas Eve. Christian uses the Arab term for Christ, and the terrorist answers, “Jesus.”
The film ends with the same sense of a divine presence shared by diverse peoples. In a moving voice-over and the last words heard in the film, Christian looks forward to coming into the presence of God, where he will see Muslim peoples as God sees them. Then in an astonishing final shot, which eerily recalls the last scene of “Biutiful,” we are given a vision of Muslims and Christians as blended and indistinguishable.
I think my friend was onto something.