14 June 2011

Of Gods and Men - monks and Islamists

The film “Of Gods and Men” (2010) is a true story set in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria.

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 ordinary human beings, of course. They missed their families back in France and they were fearful of the future; they may even have been keen to taste fine food, wine and classical music again. But led by the abbot Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), they were committed to poverty, simplicity and living the life of Christ. David Stratton called their approach to life almost mystical.

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

Richard Brody believed that at the end, the monks didn’t just salute the worldly in the abstract sense; they affirmed that their faith was that of secular European ideals of individual liberty and self-expression. As the monks were marched off to their death, they presented their readiness for sacrifice with not a thought of vengeance. Perhaps their monastic meekness might even be seen as a symbolic purging of the sins of colonialism. I disagree. I thought at the very end, we learn that bad men with guns will destroy good people who are pacifists.

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?


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
A most interesting review of a film which, for us, on account of what you describe is now a 'must see'.

We would agree that such a film, and others like it, do require a brief, explanatory note as to the time, place and setting. We are sure that if you were slightly confused about this, then you were by no means alone.

You give a thought provoking twist at the end of your post. Yes, would it have made a difference? A different film perhaps, or no film at all?

Hermes said...

There's been a lot of comment about the film and fate of the monks here in the uk. The last thing I read was a statement by French general Francois Buchwalter which said they had been killed by mistake. Alistair Hornes A Savage War of Peace was an important book for me. Thanks for a great post.

Mott said...

I also enjoyed the film very much, especially the scenes where the monks were interacting with the local villagers. Magical scenes.

Dina said...

I felt that the loud scene of the army helicopters hovering over the monastery was a hint that the monks would later be killed by helicopter gunfire in the botched rescue attempt.

Having lived several years as a working volunteer in a contemplative monastery in Europe, I felt at home in the life of the monks as well shown in the movie. Two of the sisters live in Algeria. Following a conference, they had been sleeping in the guesthouse of the Trappists on the night that the monks were abducted.

"Des hommes et des dieux" had a special one-time premier at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. The audience was overwhelmingly local monks and nuns. Viewing it with them made the movie even more moving.
Afterwards I went out on the terrace overlooking the Old City walls and prayed that such a tragedy would/could never happen in my country.

Thanks for your interesting observations and questions you raise in this post, Helen.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

I had been thinking that the rhetoric of the _reviewers_ would have changed, had it been proven that the Algerian army was involved in the murder of innocent and decent monks, accidentally or otherwise.

But you are quite right. It might well have been a different _film_.

That causes me to rethink the very last scene of the film when soldiers are marching the monks through a snowy forest in single file. There is no way of knowing who the soldiers are or what their plans are, but the viewer KNOWS it will all end in tears.

I wonder who made the decision not to indicate what happened to the monks? and at whose hand?

Hels said...

I wish I had seen the all comment (in the press? in blogs?) about the film before viewing the film. I also wish I had known more about the Algerian civil war before hand.
An uninformed viewer might be a neutral viewer politically, but it didn't make me feel too learned on the subject :(

Hels said...

the scenes where the monks were working with, or talking to the local villagers were the most sensitively handled in the entire film *nod*. There was a scene, for example, where a very old monk was discussing the meaning of love with a teenage girl, before her engagement to be married. It was sublime.

The prayer and chanting scenes were essential, to explain and display their spiritual responsibilities. But the everyday life scenes were the ones where the monks lived out their godly duties in practice.

Hels said...

how much more powerful the film must have been for a viewer with a personal or family connection to the people, the country and the times.

When the Bali bombing massacres happened on the 12th October 2002, I obsessively read every article I could find on the subject. The non-Australian people in my irc channel, although sorry it happened, did not take the events personally.

Andrew said...

There are those who rebel against the stronger and sometimes win or sometimes loose. There are those who go about their daily business, above the goings on of the evil. Although they too may loose, they do so very innocently. Rather makes me think of Europe in the 30s and 40s.

Hels said...


the murder of the Trappists was a true story, but do you feel the monks were also being used as some sort of metaphor for spiritual goodness? international morality? peace?

Nicholas V. said...

Definitely a film that we must see, now that we have read your review, Helen.
Inner peace is always the winner in a confrontation with open aggression. Faith, serenity and a civilised existence where the soul is free canot be defeated by something as insignificant as a violently imposed execution.

Hels said...

it is a tricky one. I would love to see what you think, after you have seen the film. I am not sure all the reviewers have got it right.

ChrisJ said...

I want to see this film, now.

For a long time, I have been fascinated by context and how it can so dramatically change our view of things.

This is a poignant and interesting example.

Anonymous said...

A powerful film, no doubt. I don't think it has been advertised over here.

Hels said...

Chris and Abe

it is a very quiet film! So it surprised me when I found myself repeatedly ruminating at night over.... what? I am not sure.

It seems insane that The National Liberation Front party cancelled elections after the first round in 1991 because they didn't want the Islamic Salvation Front to take over as the legitimate government. Did they think the disenfranchised half of the population would just go away quietly? No wonder the Arab spring this year has been so vengeful.