By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D | Published January 23, 2020
“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark … I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you which shall be the darkness of God as, in a theatre … so the darkness shall be the light.”
T.S. Eliot wrote these lines in “The Four Quartets” and along with St. John’s “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” they represent for me the perfect spiritual metaphor for the cinema, which is arguably the most provocative and relevant art form of the 20th century, and which celebrates this year—if one follows conventional traditional wisdom—its 125th anniversary.
Without getting bogged down in tedium, you should know that William Dickson’s and Thomas Edison’s 1890 invention of the Kinetograph—which was renamed the Kinetoscope—spurred a flurry of inventions and patents over the next few years that would quickly establish the medium of cinema as we know it today. By 1894, inventor Charles Francis Jenkins and his colleague Thomas Armat premiered a prototype of their Phantoscope to an audience in Richmond, Indiana. The following year, in March of 1895, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere premiered their Cinematographe to a private audience in Paris.
Yet the biggest moments of all came later in 1895, which is why we associate that year with the formal beginnings of the movies. On Dec. 28, 1895, the Lumiere Brothers exhibited their Cinematographe to a paying, shocked, audience in Paris. Yet earlier that year—a fact often ignored or unknown—Jenkins premiered an improved version of his Phantoscope at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. Jenkins’ device differed from Edison’s in that it projected images in a true succession of frames onto a screen. Further, Jenkins’ invention could be enjoyed by a collective audience and not just solo spectators. The special exhibition rooms built for the Exposition at Piedmont Park became the prototype for the movie theaters we still enjoy today. Edison saw the potential of the Phantoscope, bought the patent for it from Jenkins, renamed it the Vitascope—while also claiming to have invented it—and true cinema began.
The movies have often been described as a replica of religious experience. The filmmaker David Lean, a Quaker, described his experience of moviegoing as the closest thing he knew to a cathedral. And the gathering of an anonymous crowd, assembled in darkness, to be collectively illuminated by the projection onto the screen, is beautifully analogous to liturgical worship.
Throughout this year, in celebration of the 125th anniversary of cinema, I will be writing several columns that consider the enormous contribution of Catholics to film art. Of course, I’ve written many such columns on Catholic movies over the past several years, and you can find those pieces in the archives of The Georgia Bulletin website. This year, I’m going to introduce you to several films and filmmakers I’ve not yet written about, and I can’t think of a better place to begin than with a look back at the French film “Of Gods and Men,” which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
“Of Gods and Men” is based on the true story of the seven martyred monks of the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria. The seven men were kidnapped by extremists in 1996, and subsequently murdered and beheaded. You should know that there are differing accounts as to what actually happened to the monks, as well as questions about who actually killed them, but the fact remains that these men—Paul, Michel, Luc, Christophe, Bruno, Christian, and Celestine—were steadfast in their vocations and were willing to die for their faith. They were beatified in 2018.
There is a Georgia connection to the story as well. Cistercian Procurator General Armand Veilleux, who had served as abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers from 1984-1990, had the gruesome task of identifying the heads of the monks. About the experience he said, honestly, “Sometimes, it is hard to be a Christian.” Basil Pennington, who served as abbot at Conyers from 2001-2002, wrote a beautiful tribute to the martyrs in 1996, which you can easily find online.
Ten years after their martyrdom, a Catholic film producer in France embarked upon a film adaptation about the monks. The film premiered in 2010 and, most notably, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival that year. It remains one of the most moving testaments to faith, commitment, vocation and ecumenism ever filmed.
To understand the movie—not just its content, but also its form—it is essential to understand the daily life of a Cistercian, or Trappist, monk. The cutting and the pace of the film replicate precisely the ordered rhythm of a monk’s day, a day devoted to the Benedictine motto of “Ora et Labora:” prayer and work.
We see the monks at prayer often and throughout the entire film, both in the chanting of the liturgy of the hours and at Mass. The authenticity of the chant is particularly compelling, as is the simple, pure joy with which the monks prepare for their Christmas liturgy.
We see the monks at work as well, from the most mundane tasks of plowing and planting seeds, to the scholarly work of Abbot Christian, to the medicine Brother Luc practices at his clinic in the village for long hours of every day. The scenes at the clinic are perhaps the most moving. Brother Luc is himself old, tired, and sick. Yet he works all day with hundreds of people, from infants to the elderly, dispensing not only medicine but wisdom and love.
Honest portrayals of martyrs
Love is at the heart of the film. St. John reminds us that he who cannot love his neighbor cannot love God. The monks see God in the Islamic population they serve. It does not matter that the monks are Catholic Christians and their neighbors are Muslims. It does not even matter to Abbot Christian that his eventual assassin is a Muslim extremist who threatens him at gunpoint. Christian instead seeks common ground with him by quoting to him from the Quran.
The mystery of ecumenism, that respect and tolerance for the faith of others leads to greater appreciation and understanding of our own faith, is one of the film’s most enduring and relevant themes.
Christian and his brother monks—including two who escape kidnapping and death—are all very much afraid, not only of dying a violent death, but of death in general. Yet their fear cannot overwhelm their commitment to their vocation. They make the decision to stay at the abbey because that is what they feel God has called them to do. Yet their decision is an agonized one. They are men of faith, but they are also men. That the film treats the martyrs with equal measure of honor, empathy and honesty allows it to remain true and not sentimental.
In the film, as in his real life, Christian writes a last testament in which he prays to see the face of God even in the face of his killer. Christian wrote: “If God wills, I will immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of his Passion, filled with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness in playing with the differences.”
That “Of Gods and Men” is able to depict this mystery so evocatively remains a testament both to the essence of Christianity and the power of the art form we call cinema; literally, from the Greek, “it moves.”
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.