Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010, France)
By John Christman, SSS.
What does it mean for us to love God and our neighbor? How far are we willing to go? How far is God asking us to go? These are some of the questions urgently pressing upon the hearts of a group of Cistercian monks living in Algeria when the threat of violence seizes their town. And Xavier Beauvois’ sublime film, Of Gods and Men, which received the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film festival, examines this question with patient and unsentimental precision.
Before Islamic fundamentalists brutally kill a group of Croatians working nearby, daily life for these Cistercians seems somewhat commonplace. One monk runs a medical clinic in the town. A few others tend to the routine of farming and bee-keeping. Their days are divided between work and prayer. In fact, the daily ritual of prayer and Mass beautifully punctuates this film illuminating their thoughts and choices. As violence erupts and fear hangs over the town, it is their communal prayer and their solidarity with the town’s people that compels them to stay.
In this regard, the table becomes an important visual leitmotif in the film. Whether their eucharistic table, their dinner table, or the table where they sit to discuss their tenuous future in the region, tables become an important symbol in the film. The table is a symbol of nourishment. It is a place where divergent voices are heard. It is a place where fears and hopes are expressed. It is also a symbol of communion and a life shared in common. This is attested most effectively in a staggeringly profound sequence of their last meal together, set to the Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and shared with a final glass of wine. The monks’ eyes and facial expressions convey multitudes. The camera catches the discordant array of thoughts and emotions in that moment without a word being spoken. A communal life lived and shared around the table, a communal life being pulled apart from the outside. A communal life nevertheless dedicated to witnessing Christian discipleship. And, despite all of this, one monk courageously expresses their choice in these selfless words, “Let God set the table here. For everyone. Friends and enemies.”