Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et Des Dieux)
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “monk?” Tibetan Buddhists? Vows of silence? Premium Belgian-style ale with a high alcohol content?
Actually, monasticism played an important role in our history. Western civilization would not be the dominant force on planet earth right now if not for the work of monks.
After the fall of Roman Empire, Western Europe took a giant step backward. Cities were abandoned. Culture dried up. Central planning was replaced by feudal chaos.
As civilization disintegrated, though, monasticism rose. Inspired by the strict but appealing Rule of St. Benedict, monasteries sprang up all over Europe.
Medieval monks didn’t just pray. They learned. They read. They copied books by hand. When Latin died, medieval monks made sure to keep the language alive and to save the great literature of antiquity for future generations.
Western European peasants were illiterate stone age brutes compared to the more cosmopolitan people of Byzantium and Persia. However, Christian monks were the intellectual equals of anyone in the world.
Monks made a convincing case for the supremacy of Roman Catholicism with their brilliant writings and holy actions.
When the West finally emerged from the Dark Ages and Europeans began to colonize the globe, intrepid monks were right there with the armies and conquistadores.
Monasteries showed conquered cultures that not all Europeans are violent soldiers. Monks impressed people with their decency, selflessness, and intelligence. Missionary monks converted countless millions to Christianity.
The history of monasticism is important. However, the day-to-day existence of the average monk is utterly mundane.
Monasticism is interesting. Monks are boring. Unfortunately, the French film “Of Gods and Men” is about monks.
It tells the true story of a small band of Trappist monks living in rural Algeria in the mid-1990s. The monks were well-liked by their Muslim neighbors and provided free medical attention for the sick.
When a civil war between religious extremists and the moderate government broke out, the monks were caught in the middle. They refused to take up arms or take sides, so they were distrusted by both factions and utterly helpless.
The monks knew they were in serious danger, but they chose to stay put. They continued their daily routine and their good works – stoically awaiting certain death.
“Of Gods and Men” is an absolute failure. Writer/director Xavier Beauvois has no respect for the viewer’s time or patience. There are dozens of tedious, repetitive scenes of the monks doing their chores. In silence.
The film also fails to adequately communicate what inspired these brave men to lay down their lives. Some of the monks speak of “sacrifice,” but it isn’t clear to me what cause they thought they were sacrificing for.
There is a lot of speech making, but not much in the way of thought-provoking philosophy. There is a lot of grim foreboding, but not much drama or suspense.
The influence and importance of monasticism in Western History is overlooked. The most acclaimed film about monks this year – “Of Gods and Men” – is overrated. And boring.