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For Your Consideration: 'Of Gods and Men'

We took note of Xavier Beauvois's film Des hommes et des dieux when it was released in France last fall. The film, a retelling of the story of the assassination of a group of monks in Algeria in 1996, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Catholic diocese around France sponsored screenings of the film, followed by discussions of the film to promote Catholic-Muslim dialogue. The monastery featured in the film, Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, was established by the Trappists near the village of Lodi, itself founded by French colonists in the agricultural region of Tibhirine. It was only a priory in the late 20th century, and its prior, Frère Christian de Chergé, led a faith exchange between Christians and Muslims. Played with solemn intellect by Lambert Wilson, he guides the monks in his care as the civil war between Islamic fundamentalists and the government worsens, making the threat to the safety of the monastery more and more imminent.

For events that took place in the 1990s, the look of the film is more timeless, seeming set farther back in the past than it actually is. Part of that impression is due to the effect of monastic time, which comes across in the stillness and silence of this movie, perhaps less effectively than the real thing in another recent film about monks, Die große Stille. The monks in this film have their weaknesses and fears and squabbles, but the love of the community is felt in a very real way. They do not all agree at first that they should remain in the face of danger from the civil war, after a harrowing late-night encounter with the militants. In accordance with monastic tradition, at chapter meeting the monks follow the advice of the senior brother, Frère Amédée (the spritely Jacques Herlin), to think and pray over it longer. They reach agreement after they all come to an understanding that they were called to this greater love in this place and to help these people. They put themselves on this particular road back to God, so why deviate from it now?

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The performances are all stately but honest, missing some of the earthly humor of monks that balances out their spiritual elevation. Veteran actor Michael Lonsdale returns to the monastic habit, after his memorable turn as the Benedictine abbot in The Name of the Rose, as Frère Luc, a doctor who runs a clinic for the local villagers. (Although not portrayed that way in the movie, Frère Luc was actually older than Frère Amédée.) At dinner in the refectory after the community has come to a decision to stay, Frère Luc puts on a recording of the climactic scene of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (the meaning of self-sacrifice for a beloved other is clear) and offers the monks some well-deserved wine. The only false note in the film was the music, which is mostly Taizé-style French chant and simple polyphony: this music is pleasing in its own and quite appropriate for a 20th-century French monastic community, but it lacks the solidity and tradition of Gregorian chant, featured so beautifully in Die große Stille. This facet of the movie, combined with a perhaps overly angelic view of the martyrdom (the monks who were taken hostage were decapitated), weakens the film slightly, but it is still well worth watching.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember an Algerian woman crying after the slaughter: This is no islam, she said, this is a blasphemy !"Those who comit the crime were killed by their own fellow islamists.