Rappahannock author and historian John Kiser wrote a widely acclaimed book, “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria” (published in 2003). Now a new, internationally recognized French film — “Of Gods and Men” — closely follows Kiser’s true tale about a group of French Cistercian Trappist monks caught up in the violence of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.
Kiser describes it as a “love story wrapped in a horror story.” It tells of a small, remote community of Trappists who maintain their friendship with Muslim neighbors during the conflict rather than fleeing for their lives, with tragic consequence.
Grand Prize-winner at the Cannes Film festival last fall, the 2010 film earned nominations as best foreign film from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Independent Spirit Awards and London Critics Circle, and won Best Foreign Film designation by the National Board of Review. The New York Times film review described it as a “beautiful, somber and rigorously intelligent,” and it received rave reviews from The New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post, among others.
The film was screened last week by the National Press Club for a standing-room crowd of Washington journalists, and Kiser answered questions about the film and the aftermath of the events depicted. His remarks were well received, particularly in light of the ongoing conflicts/revolts in Arab nations.
March signals the nationwide roll-out of the French film in the U.S., scheduled to be screened in about 90 cities. According to Kiser, it won’t be until May at the earliest that a DVD will be available from Sony, the American distributor for “Of Gods and Men,” to allow it to be shown here in Rappahannock. He offered to do a question-and-answer session when that occurs.
“The whole thing was a wonderful surprise,” Kiser said. “I didn’t know the book was so important until I heard about the interviews in Cannes. When interviewed there, Xavier Beauvois, the film director, told how he had met the former banker and monk who had translated Kiser’s book, published by Nouvelle Cite. “It was like our Bible for the film,” he said.
Actor Lambert Wilson, who played the key role of Father Superior Christian de Chergé, agreed, hailing Kiser’s book as “a mine of information for understanding my role, the character of his (religious) community and the political situation.” Nouvelle Cite, said the book served as the primary basis for the film.
Gilles Nicolas, a priest, friend of the monks and witness to many of the events depicted in the film, wrote in La Semaine Religieuse, “This book is not the first about the monks of Tibhirine, but it could well be the best of all the books in all languages. I was struck by the accuracy of the portraits of each of the seven monks, by the description of context of the events, and by the author’s comprehension of the spirituality of the Cistercian’s [monastic] calling . . . Thank you to the author for the seriousness of his investigation and for having turned this drama into a reading of a quality that it deserved.”
Kiser says he is frequently asked to offer context to the movie; he’s likely to tell of the warm relations between Christians and Muslims in much of the Arab world even today. He combines writing (four books published to great reviews) with pig farming in Slate Mills.
(Kiser’s latest book is “Commander of the Faithful,” the story of Emir Abd el-Kader, the 19th- century Algerian leader who led a Jihad against the French and was praised for his compassion and honor by Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and the Pope, as well as many of the French soldiers who he took prisoner. When he died in 1883, the New York Times wrote that he “deserved to be counted among the few great men of the century.”)