The original monks of Tibhirine, Algeria
“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to fall victim to the terrorism which seems to now want to engulf all the foreigners living here, I would like my community, my church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
“May they accept that the Unique Master of all life could not be a stranger to this brutal departure. May they be able to associate this death to so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of anonymity.”
When Father Christian de Chergé, the French prior of the Cistercian household in Tibhirine, Algeria, wrote that testament, he didn’t expect to inspire France’s top-grossing movie in 2010 or a Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, among numerous other accolades.
But opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles is Xavier Beauvois’ film “Of Gods and Men,” and it will be in other cities soon.
In March 1996, Father Christian and six of his brother monks were kidnapped by the Armed Islamic Group or GIA, whose members sought to overthrow Algeria’s government and demanded that France release Islamists from its custody. Two months later, the monks’ heads were found near Médéa.
Yet in a country where some 99 percent of the people are Sunni Muslim, these Christians won many hearts.
Henry Quinson, a layman who lives in community with Cistercian monks in Marseilles, was the monastic adviser on the film. Quinson knew four of the victims – Father Christian, Father Christophe Lebreton, Father Célestin Ringeard, and Brother Paul Favre-Miville – so he set the scene for WND.
“Everybody in Algeria has to say they are Muslims,” he said. “For example, if you don’t observe Ramadan, you end up in prison. I know many Christians in Algeria, but they’re hiding.”
Since the 1996 tragedy, the Cistercian order rarely sends monks to Tibhirine. Nevertheless, when Quinson went there, he found that the villagers care for the cemetery where the monks’ heads are laid to rest, and they wanted more of their Catholic brothers to come.
“When you have a Muslim population asking for Christian monks, it’s just so different from what you hear on television and radio about all these interreligious conflicts,” said Quinson.
Lambert Wilson, who plays Father Christian, seems to know why. He told the New York Times, “I fell in love with the character. Christian is very complex – a man of extreme power of conviction, very sensitive, extremely altruistic, like all the monks were. But he was also a great intellectual and a leader, a man who could convince those monks, even before the danger started to appear, that they had to build this bridge between Christianity and Islam.”
Cineuropa tells us that Beauvois, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Etienne Comar, simply couldn’t resist the Cistercians’ depth of faith, hope and charity.
“I immersed myself in the life of these brothers and I was immediately captivated, surprised and inhabited by them,” he said. “It’s rare, nowadays, in a selfish society, to see people taking an interest in others, in other people’s religion, intelligent, passionate people, who are in the state of ‘being’ whereas we’re in the state of ‘doing,’ doing things. … It did me good to meet people who are curious about the beauty of others, about their religion.”
To that end, Beauvois’ film is as unpredictable as the free wills of men.
It depicts one band of GIA terrorists who slit the throats of Croatian construction workers and the Tibhirine Muslims grieve. Later in the film, on Christmas Eve, that same band of murderers shows up at the monks’ house, where they demand that 82-year-old Brother Luc Dochier come away with them to treat their wounded.
Tension builds as Father Christian refuses to let the terrorists take Brother Luc and tells them about Christmas, whereupon the terrorist leader’s reaction is stunning.
Michael Lonsdale, whom Quinson described as “a Catholic of strong faith,” plays Brother Luc, who had left his medical practice, changed his name in honor of the physician apostle, and then cared for the hearts, minds, bodies and souls of 100 patients a day in Tibhirine.
A young woman in the movie asks Brother Luc what true love is like.
“Have you ever been in love?” she asks him.
“Oui. Several times, yes. And then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love,” he says.
The other decapitated monks were Brothers Bruno Lemarchand and Michel Fleury.
Documents released by the government of France reveal that the monks might have been killed by the Algerian military mistakenly as it targeted the terrorist kidnappers. Some believe that Algeria’s government destroyed the monks’ bodies and strategically placed the heads to implicate the GIA.
In France, 3.2 million people saw “Of Gods and Men” and Quinson hopes millions more will see it in America.
He said, “I think it’s very important to share this story because people look at it in a negative way.
“A lot of people in France don’t know the real situation in Muslim countries. As I usually say to my friends, there’s one billion Muslims in the world and hopefully many of them are kind people.”
Quinson made no apologies for Islam per se, but he made an important distinction.
“In the case of Algeria and many of these [Islamic] countries, you have people in charge of the governments that are ruthless,” he said. “They don’t really care about religion, they use religion for their own purposes.”