With the beatification of the seven Trappist monks of Tibhirine (and 11 other male and female Religious killed during the civil war that raged in Algeria throughout the 1990s) due to take place on Saturday, December 8, I recently rewatched Of Gods and Men, the 2010 film about their tragic story. When I first watched it, in the subterranean Renoir Cinema in the Bloomsbury district of London, I was enthralled by it. It is always dangerous to return to a film you loved after a number of years, but I’m delighted to say that it is every bit as good as I remembered it to be.
The director Xavier Beauvois tells the monks’ story with sensitivity and skill. As they minister to the local villages in a mountainous region of Algeria, they become increasingly threatened by the conflict raging between the government and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a brutally violent Islamist militia. We see the monks listening to the complaints of villagers, who criticise the terrorists for not knowing the Koran. We see the terrorists viciously murdering Croatian construction workers and later demanding medicine from the monks (quoting the Koran while they are at it). On more than one occasion, the Algerian army leaders and politicians beg the monks to leave. As we know, they would not be moved.
At times Of Gods and Men is like a Western, with the monks awaiting their high noon. In other moments, it comes across as an existential art-house drama. Scenes of the monks at prayer or attending a party in the village have a documentary feel. The film investigates religious tolerance and the meaning of martyrdom, and the difference between faith and fundamentalism. In the years that have passed since its release, with the persecution of Christians increasing the world over, it continues to resonate.
The actors playing the Brothers are, to a man, absolutely magnificent. In tandem with Beauvois’s script and direction, they make this group of legendary men very real. There is a stunning moment late in the film in which they gather for what, unbeknown to them, is their last supper together. They drink wine as the overture of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake booms from a tape machine. The camera pans across their faces as smiles give way to tears. At the time of the release there was some debate about whether this scene was mawkish, but I loved it then, and I love it still.
As the film shows, seven of the nine monks were abducted from their monastery on March 27, 1996. The two who were not taken had been sleeping in rooms the kidnappers failed to search. On May 31 of that same year, seven days after the GIA claimed to have killed the Brothers, the Algerian government announced that their decapitated heads had been discovered. To this day the rest of their bodies have never been found.
Although the GIA said it carried out the murders, over the years some have raised doubts. A number of competing hypotheses suggest that the Algerian authorities may have been involved. One prominent theory is that, following their abduction, the monks were killed by an army helicopter that accidentally fired on the compound where they were being held. To cover up the accident, this theory goes, the monks’ bodies were disposed of and their heads “discovered” to make it seem as if GIA executions had taken place.
From prison, a former GIA leader disputed this account and reiterated that his group was responsible for the murders. However, a report into the killings released by French investigators earlier this year contradicted that “official” version. After exhuming and examining the skulls, investigators said that the men were decapitated post-mortem and that they had died a month before May 21, the date the GIA claimed to have carried out the murders. Speaking after the release of the report, a lawyer representing the monks’ families said: “We do not yet have the absolute truth; the main problem is that a wall of silence reigns.”
As Of Gods and Men ends, we see the monks led through a snowstorm by their captors. The image fades out and a caption reads: “The circumstances of their death remains a mystery.” The film avoids answering the question of who killed them, but what it does brilliantly is demonstrate the astonishing fortitude of these Brothers amid such terrifying circumstances.
In announcing the beatifications, the Algerian bishops said the monks “are given to us as intercessors and models of Christian life, friendship and fraternity, encounter and dialogue”. Of Gods and Men underlines the truth of these words in moving terms. Their Cause was not opened until 2013, some 17 years after their deaths. That this happened soon after Of Gods and Men’s release could be a coincidence, but I like to think that the film played some part in the martyrs of Algeria gaining the recognition they truly deserve.