The Algerian Civil War was an ongoing and tragic conflict that continued throughout the 1990s, fought out between the Algerian government and various Islamic military groups. The conflict began in December 1991 when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party was gaining popularity. The National Liberation Front (FLN) party, fearing a FIS victory, cancelled elections after the first round. As a result, the country's military took control of the government in a 1992 coup. The guerrillas had initially targeted the nation’s army and police, but by the time of this story, 1996, some groups had started shooting civilians as well. A truce of sorts was eventually declared in 1999, but by then some 200,000 citizens had been murdered.
I wish the director Xavier Beauvois had written something about the year and geographic location at the beginning of the film, to set the scene. Before seeing Of Gods and Men, I thought that the film was set in the 1950s and that it described the conflict between France and the Algerian independence movements. And since there were constant references to French colonial power in the power, it seemed to this viewer that Algeria was still trying to gain its independence from France. [Trappists live an ahistorical life, so it wasn't until I noticed a flat screen tv and attack helicopters in the film that I realised the 1950s War of Independence was not the setting]. Needless to say the setting looked totally authentic - the film was created in the very old, long-deserted Benedictine monastery of Tioumliline Morocco.
Eight Roman Catholic French Trappist monks lived quietly in their monastery in mountainous country, serving God and the people who lived in the impoverished villages beyond the monastery walls. Life was quiet, predictable and religious. They spent endless hours praying, reading spiritually uplifting stories, cooking, gardening, washing dishes, chopping wood and singing. The film opens with Psalm 82 being read: "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes."
The monks being faced by soldiers, inside their monastery
The monks were not out of contact with the real world. They looked after the sick from the local villages, gave out clothing to needy families, sold their food products in open markets and helped with agricultural tasks in the villages. In return the Muslim locals seemed to have a true love for these elderly gents in their funny Christian uniforms, especially the doctor Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) who was superb.
Peace continued in its normal way until the monks and villagers heard about the murder of Croatian labourers on a nearby construction site. Why were the Croatian men murdered? Who would be next? The Algerian government certainly made it clear to the Trappists that their own lives could not be protected and that they should rush back to France on the first ship. Yet even when rebel soldiers invaded the monastery itself, armed to the teeth, the monks were reluctant to leave.
The most telling part of the film came, quietly, towards the end. The monks sat at their normal refectory table, enjoying a last bottle of wine and a last session of Tchaikovsky music. Despite the inevitable catastrophe about to befall them, the viewer could see their outer joy and could start to understand their inner peace. If it were me, I would NOT have been smiling. But then I wouldn't have stayed in Algeria during the Civil War, had there been an opportunity to escape back to France.
Monks voting whether to stay or leave
But what is the take-home message to historically minded viewers? Not whether the tension between the monks is well shown, nor the relationships between the monks and the outsiders - the film is indeed filled with faith, austerity and the responsibility of the men to God and to other humans. My interest would be how accurately the film engages itself in this modern tragedy, the Algerian civil war.
Would it have made any difference if Beames On Film is correct. At the time, 1996, the killings were claimed by The Armed Islamic Group of Algeria. But Beames wrote French secret service documents now suggest it was the Algerian army who had really killed the monks, as a result of some ghastly error. Would film reviewers have been talking about the nightmare of religious fundamentalism if they had known the national army did the murders?