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Of Gods And Men (2010,France)

25/07/2011

Director: Xavier Beauvois    Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Farid Larbi

When I think of missionaries the vociferous atheist in me cries out in anguish at images of interfering, colonially minded invaders bringing ruination to indiginous peoples around the globe with their combination of imported dogma and foreign bacteria. I am the first to admit that this is a stereotype, a biased, negative one at that and that the reality of any religious mission is rarely going to be so one dimensional. Xavier Beauvois’ film serves as a powerful reminder of this fact.

Based on the true story, it’s centred around a Trappist monastery in Algeria where a small group of monks who spend any time not devoted to their religious studies administering medical aid to the local community find themselves under increasing threat from militant Islamic rebels who are engaged in civil war with the Algerian government. As the inevitability of meeting an unsavoury fate at the hands of the terrorists becomes more evident, the monks must decide whether to forsake their many years of service to the community and flee back to France or remain and risk a brutal death at the hands of the militants.

It’s a contemplative piece of work. We are introduced to the monks as they carry out their day to day activities. The sick and injured of the village attend their clinic for medical treatment, they grow their own food and sell the excess at the local market. Having been a part of the community for a long time they are on friendly terms with the villagers and even share a close relationship with the local Imams. The opening scenes are quiet and patient, possessed of a peace that belies the growing conflict in the country. These monks are not on a mission to convert the populace to their religion, rather they coexist with the Islamic population, sharing in their customs and traditions. The focus, like in the pre-Crusades middle east, is on religous tolerance and understanding, sharing the common elements of their faith and trying to help the less fortunate. It’s refreshing to see religious people portrayed in this light rather than through the lens of multi-denominational extremism. In fact, great pains are taken to differentiate between the genuine, peaceful Muslims and the extremists who have attached religion to their cause.

The real conflict is the inner struggle the monks face when the question arises of whether to stay or go. Their crisis of conscience becomes for them a crisis of faith as they are forced to question why they came to Algeria in the first place and what they can hope to achieve by staying. Some of the finest moments in the film arise from the stillness of quiet debate among the monks as they express their varying views on the matter and justify their opinions to their fellows. This of course is driven by the wonderful performances from the central cast, most notably Lambert Wilson as Christian, the leader of the group and the always amazing (and indisputably monk-like) Michael Lonsdale who fills the role of Luc, the monastery’s physician. Between them they convey so much with so little obvious effort, subtly portraying the conflict between their beliefs and their doubts and insecurities, often with very few words. It’s magnificent to behold.

Caroline Champetier’s cinematography captures the haunting beauty of the landscape wonderfully, giving way to an almost documentary style when we see the monks mingling with the locals as they live their daily lives. It’s a joy to behold and adds so much impact to the film’s uglier moments like the graphic murder of foreign construction workers by the rebels or the aftermath of a military checkpoint that has stopped a terrorist vehicle when the sprawling, often lush, vistas give way to tighter, more intimate scenes.

For a film that, on the face of it, purports to be about religion it is really more about  humanity. Where we find our courage and morality, why we treat each other the way we do, what drives us in our lives. These are the sorts of questions it asks while it tries to redress the balance between the ultra extremist image of religion we are constantly exposed to by the media and its more mundane and benevolent opposite extreme. The fact is, whether you are religious, atheist or agnostic there can be no denying the courage, dignity and humanity shown by the monks in the face of terrifying brutality and the poignancy of their fate, something that is all the more impressive when you remind yourself in the closing minutes of the film that it really happened. There can also be no denying that Beauvois’ film, in all it’s quiet glory, is a fine and fitting tribute.

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