Of Gods and Men is an award winning French film by Xavier Beauvois. Whilst exploring the issues of men beyond 50 was probably not the director’s aim, it actually provides a lot of deep, moving perspectives on this topic, which will speak to your heart and soul. See it if you can.
The film’s focus is a community of eight French Christian monks and their monastery on the edge of a poor rural village in Algeria. There is real friendship, mutual support and shared poverty between the monks and their Muslim neighbours, and we see how all their lives are deeply shaken by the fierce conflict between the Government and Islamist terrorists.
The terrorist threat is deadly and uncertain. At one point, the Islamists invade the monastery, but this time they are seeking medical help for their wounded. The eight monks are all men, with an age range from the 50s through the 60s into the 80s. We see them as a set of individuals, and as a group, living with the daily threat of a violent death. This makes them question their faith, the purpose of being there, and whether martyrdom would have any point. We see them finding courage and faith in huge uncertainty, staying centred through essentials like companionship and being of service in a terrifying situation. And how the daily tasks like cooking and gardening can help to steady and heal us when the problems feel overwhelming.
This is also a brilliant film about leadership. The monks do not have a chief imposed on them: they have elected Christian as their leader, and we see him grow before our eyes. Early on, he takes an important hasty decision alone, and is gently told at a round table meeting, “We didn’t elect you to take decisions without us.” When the terrorists burst in, guns in hands, it is Christian who comes out alone to face their leader. The young terrorist is angry, in a hurry, bullying, yet Christian faces him down, and they retreat, even apologising for disturbing the day of Christmas. We sense that Christian’s faith, poverty, integrity, and his sheer presence as an elder with these qualities, can overcome the gunmen.
Don’t kid yourself that a handful of monks in North Africa are marginal to your life. This film brings out so many core questions for older men with piercing clarity: What is the point of my life, now? In a crisis, can I base my choices on some value higher than ego and survival? Where’s the balance between my self and my community? It also has beautiful teaching on the issues of leadership in a men’s group: we see the monks gently but forcibly reshaping their leader so that he stops dictating and starts including them.
This is also a rich and thought-provoking film about different faiths, different communities, and how they relate. The monks and their Muslim neighbours are all living simple, subsistence lives: they are companions, they help each other, and even take part in each other’s devotions. We can see them as two branches of the local community, and when the monks consider leaving, the local villagers treat them like family, urging them to stay.
Like that other genius film about the Algerian conflict, The Battle for Algiers, this film refuses to cast blame or simplify a complex and contradictory situation. Of Gods and Men has a rhythm running through the film of the monks’ daily prayers, which to me suggests that in all the confusion of life, we may need to keep coming back to prayer, surrender and faith in the face of the huge unknown.