My wife and I recently watched Xavier Beauvois’ film Of Gods and Men, partly because a friend of mine left his Netflix account logged in on my computer, and partly because Jeff Overstreet, in his recent blog, recommended it as one film which helpfully counters the deluge of recent films that the evangelical community has been swooning over as of late.
Over the past few years I have watched Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and most recently (and most reluctantly), Courageous. Yet while the central messages are something I could agree with, there is something about these films that still does not sit well.
That shoddy writing, unrealistic dialogue, cardboard characterization and poor acting are seen to be pardonable sins when a film’s message is good and true, reveals an unconcern for beauty that should be far more disconcerting to far more people. These films are championed for being unashamedly countercultural; yet surely to abandon the basic elements of good film to deliver a poignant message is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is not good art, and some might even argue it is hardly good Christianity.
Don’t get me wrong, marital fidelity and the importance of stable father figures are noble ideas and we need films that show this, but films are not sermons and should not be treated or appreciated as such.
And this is what I love about Of Gods and Men: although it is a film that revolves around a small fellowship of French monks who face the persecution of Islamist extremists and the story line is constantly interjected with short clips of liturgical prayers and singing, Beauvois somehow avoids preaching. The film is evidence of an artist who is in service to the truth and to his craft.
One of the truths that Beauvois beautifully communicates is the “unlooked-for” nature of true heroism.
In Book IV of The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo are (unbeknownst to them) about to walk into Shelob’s lair, a trap laid for them by Gollum, when Sam says:
The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.
There is more than just a little of this in Of Gods and Men. The monks do not go out seeking to die for their faith or to make some heroic last stand for the world to see; in fact, they have no idea that their story will ever be told. Like most of us, the monks reflect very little upon the reality that they are taking part in a story because, as for most of us, they have little conception of the nature of the story and of what part they play. They see in the “mirror darkly.”
They make decisions moment by moment, but as death approaches, they seem to be overwhelmed by the story in which they must now choose to partake. The question of whether or not they should stay hangs over the men as each confronts his own weakness and fear at facing death, the final enemy.
Of course, the film begs self-reflection: What type of man would I be at zero hour? What would I do should my place where I have found my calling become hostile, perhaps to the point of death? Would I stay, or flee to safety? Should I?
Captain Fellows, the brash American businessman in Greene’s The Power and the Glory, thinks that “he’d always been a man who was good at zero hour”; but when his life is violently interrupted by the Gringo, we find him at the novel’s close packing his bags for America. The whiskey priest, however, has no pretentions to goodness and no delusions of grandeur. In fact, the only reason he is still in a secular state that is killing off the priests is due to his inability to make a decision quickly enough, and now Death is at his heels. Yet his duty keeps him going. And each day the whiskey priest confronts his weakness and moves towards death.
Greene, like Beauvois, leaves us to see that there is more duty than daring in the hero. Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Easier said than done, yet Bonhoeffer chose to stay in the hostile Germany that would take his life.
Of Gods and Men is an excellent countercultural reminder that Story is something much bigger than character; and it is an unfortunate reality that we seldom stumble into any type of a self-conscious awareness of the Stories in which we play a part. But when we do stumble into such stories, whether it is in our lives or in the lives of others, we have a responsibility to tell them and to tell them in way that gives the truth its beautiful due.