Monday, August 8, 2011

Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men)

To stay or leave? That was the question facing a community of French Trappist monks living in the mountains of Algeria as civil war broke out between the corrupt government and Islamist insurgents. These monks had been a part of their community for decades, peacefully coexisting with their Muslim neighbors. Their days were lived to the rhythms of prayer and work, and they embodied the love of Christ to the villagers by providing health care at a clinic on the monastery premises. Now they were caught in the middle between two sides that wouldn't mourn the collateral damage of a few dead French missionaries. To make a long story short the monks of Tibherine remained, and in 1996 seven of their number paid for that decision with their lives. It's presumed they were kidnapped and killed by one of the terrorist groups fighting the government. The bodies were found, but the details of what happened remain a mystery.

That is the outline of the story told by the 2010 French film Of Gods and Men, directed by the previously unknown to me Xavier Beauvois. I can't think of a more beautiful cinematic portrayal of faith, hope and love. The movie opens slowly and quietly as we follow the brothers going about their vocation -- praying, working and caring for the sick. They are thoroughly embedded and accepted members of their community. When an elderly woman needs help obtaining a passport to visit her son in France she comes to the brothers. When a young woman needs advice on matters of the heart she comes to the brothers. In one scene we see them being invited to -- and attending -- a family celebration which concludes with the village imam offering prayers. One senses on the part of these Christians not a naive acceptance of Islam, but a respectful effort to understand it and build bridges between faiths. The leader of the group -- Brother Christian (an apt name) -- is able to quote the Qur'an as confidently as he quotes the Bible, which he does in a tense stand-off with the terrorist leader who invades the peaceful confines of the monastery on Christmas night.

Director Beauvois channels the spirit of Robert Bresson by allowing silence, light and shadow to tell this story as much as does sound and dialogue. This is a movie about a group, a collective, yet each member is allowed to shine as an individual. As the threat of violent death hangs over the monastery each man must wrestle with the implications of his calling. For one in particular there's a dark night of the soul to pass through before arriving at a confirmation of being on the right path. Each brother must count the cost. Of the cast only Michael Lonsdale will be familiar to most American viewers. He plays Brother Luc -- the clinic's doctor -- a man of deep compassion and irascible spirit. "I'm not afraid of terrorists and I'm not afraid of death. I'm a free man," he defiantly declares with a twinkle in his eye. And we believe it.

Of Gods and Men is one of the most understated films of recent years, but I think that's why it's so effective. I found it even better on second viewing. It's exciting and dramatic, but not in the conventional ways. The dramatic impetus is supplied by the moral seriousness of the situation. Even if we don't know the story going in, we can pretty much guess what the outcome is going to be. The monks sense it too. Once a vote is taken -- which turns out to be unanimous for staying -- the film plays out with several scenes of remarkable power. The last time the brothers are together is around a table. There is food and wine and for the only time in the film swelling music -- a recording of the Swan Lake Overture. It's a last supper of shattering emotional impact, a profound moment of catharsis before the final test. There are tears of joy mixed with sorrow. I couldn't help but see it as a foretaste of another communal meal, one where the joy will be of everlasting duration.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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