BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
As I watched "Of Gods and Men," I felt I was sitting through a silent film of a still life painting of a never ending church service directed by an aging Ingmar Bergman. Devout, somber and well intentioned, it ultimately drowns in its own excruciating tedium.
Quite frankly, the repetitive church services where dedicated monks were seen engaged in liturgical rituals reminded me of my childhood in Batesville, Indiana, at a Catholic grade school in the 1950's. For 8 years my classmates and I attended Mass at least 6 times a week during the school year, and it was often 12 times when our turn came to assist the Priests at various daily Masses that were conducted for early morning worshipers.
Conducted in Latin, a language that we didn't understand then or now, we boys desperately looked around for something to entertain us. One of our favorites was betting on which part of the service one of our Parish Priests would overlook due to the fact that he was chronically hung over. The other concerned our combination of glee and abject horror as we watched our favorite clergyman, a man tragically suffering from the ravages of Parkinson's disease, try to place a sacred wafer on an anxiety ridden communicant's tongue. Do you have any idea how shocking it was for a 10 year old boy to see what he thought was literally the Body of Christ go flying through the air like a small Frisbee?
Regardless, I learned at an early age to associate church services with excruciating boredom, and I further learned to occupy myself by memorizing what I called "Martyr Cards," so-called "Holy Cards" that contained a brief description of early Saints and the particular way that they were put to death for their faith. It was far more fun to read how Saint Peter was crucified upside down, Saint John was boiled in oil and Saint Lucy (Lucia) had her eyes poked out than to listen to a chorus sing Gregorian Chant.
The bottom line is that sitting through "Of Gods and Men" was like returning to my youth in church without the diversion of my precious "Martyr Cards." Simply put, this story of a handful of French Catholic Monks who had to decide whether to flee Algeria during their Civil War to throw off the yoke of French Colonialism or stay with their devoted flock had enormous obvious potential. Sadly, however, it went unrealized at every turn.There was no grit, no suspense and no pathos. It is only being slightly flippant to observe that at times I sat there feeling that if the Algerian rebels didn't kill our good French Monks then boredom would.
As incredible as it is to say, Director Xavier Beauvois' film robbed the doomed monks of any sense of nobility. A few uplifting scenes where we see them ministering to the needs of the local villagers was lost on Beauvois' strange decision to continually focus on lengthy scenes of the monks participating in religious services behind their cloistered walls.
With the exception of the great French actor Michael Lonsdale, who plays a monk known as Luc, none of the monks had any individualized personalities. Luc was old, worn out and dedicated to providing whatever medical services he could to the poor people who appeared daily at the Abbey. While he ministered to the impoverished Algerians' physical health as much as he did to their souls, even he couldn't save this film from imploding on itself.
The real pity about "Of Gods and Men" is that the monks seemed little different than other French Colonial occupiers of Algeria. This film had no chance if you didn't care about these men, and Mr. Beauvois simply failed to give the viewer any meaningful reason to do so.
Let me emphatically say that my criticism of "Gods and Men" should not be taken as a cheap slap at the many dedicated men and women of various religious orders that are doing the work of the angels around the world. Their selfless dedication, often at the risk of their own lives, is praiseworthy beyond description.
In particular, the women who are laboring as Nuns of the Catholic Church in service to the poor, sick and oppressed deserve our hosannas far more than their aging, male authoritarian task masters sitting in comfort in Rome. These women represent all that is good and commendable about today's Catholic Church, not the Pope, the College of Cardinals and complicit Bishops around the world who, among other clueless decisions, have consciously abetted and covered up the worldwide pedophile scandal that has brought shame on the Church.
So let me close with one final observation concerning "Of Gods and Men." Unless a doctor has given you 2 hours to live, I strongly advise that you stay away. On the other hand, if he has, then go immediately, as 2 hours watching this film will seem like an eternity.