The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Reading Chaim Potok in Algeria

By Ralph Seliger

  • Print
  • Share Share
Sony Pictures Classics

In this age of conflicts in and with the Islamic world, it’s heartening to see a fact-based film about religious amity, even one that’s set during a sectarian civil war in an Arab country. The French-language production “Of Gods and Men” follows a group of French monks in Algeria who are threatened by Islamic extremists during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. After winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010, the film is being released commercially in the U.S. on February 25.

The film’s star, Lambert Wilson (alongside the ever-stately Michael Lonsdale), is a veteran actor in both his native French and in English. His talents as a singer stand him in good stead as Brother Christian, the head monk in a Trappist monastery. The authentic prayers the actors intone are but one of the film’s charms.

Aside from a title inspired by Psalm 82, the Jewish connection is slight: A visiting monk brings “The Chosen” as a gift requested by Christian. The screenwriter, Etienne Comar, confirmed in an e-mail that this was Chaim Potok’s novel, but he could not recall if the gift was factual or an invention.

When I met with Wilson in New York in January, he concurred that his character would have been interested in Potok’s story about the struggle of faith with modernity. The actor explained that he knew Christian well from reading his detailed notes from that time: “He was extremely open-minded and well-read,” Wilson said.

Wilson further explained that Christian studied the Koran when residing as a priest in Rome; he then permitted the construction of a mosque on the monastery’s property. (The press kit indicates that Trappist monks have no “mission of evangelization and refrain from all proselytism.”) As dramatically depicted, it was Christian’s thorough knowledge of the Koran that enabled him to come to an understanding with a terrorist leader.

Wilson regards himself as “spiritual” rather than religious. With the important exceptions of a “need to see the world” and rejecting celibacy, the actor described his attraction to aspects of monastic life: “I love silence, prayer, gardening, singing, contemplation.”

In fact, Wilson was baptized by L’Abbe Pierre, a charismatic priest he portrayed in a film in 1989. Yet never feeling “at ease with dogma,” this nominal Catholic said that he could well have been “baptized as a Muslim or Jew.” I did not tell him that this would have involved some blood letting from a sensitive body part.

Watch the trailer for ‘Of Gods and Men’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Algeria, Cannes, Chaim Potok, Etienne Comar, Film, Lambert Wilson, L’Abbe Pierre, Michael Lonsdale, Of Gods and Men, Ralph Seliger, The Chosen

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.