The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Reading Chaim Potok in Algeria

By Ralph Seliger

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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’:

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