Saturday, April 23, 2011

OF GODS AND MEN (2010): Religion and Tolerance

Of Gods and Men is one of the most thoughtful movies I have ever seen.  I’d probably go back to The Apostle – Robert Duvall’s extremely undervalued 1997 production – to find a film that would have forced a viewer to so question their own assumptions concerning a particular subject.  In both films, religion has been treated respectfully to such an extent that one has to marvel as to how either came to be filmed.  It goes without saying that neither movie was made in a major Hollywood studio.

In Of Gods and Men, we have a group of Cistercian Trappist monks performing good works to a small and impoverished community located in Algeria.  The members of that community also happen to be Muslims.  Headed by a priest named Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monks partake in the religious rituals of the local people, provide mainly practical rather than religious advice, and never seem to proselytize. An elderly monk named Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is particularly loved by the people for his humor and for his efforts to provide medical care to anyone that happens to be in need of it.  When not helping members of the community, the monks sing their chants and comply with their priestly rituals.  These monks also happen to be in a country torn by civil war between a corrupt government and certain Muslim factions that are deemed to be terrorists. Near the monastery there was a slaughter of civilians that brought the area under the scrutiny of the government.  That the monks are willing to provide any humanitarian assistance at all to the local population is viewed with suspicion by government leaders. 

One Christmas Eve, the monks are visited by a group of men led by Rabbia (Sabrina Ouazani) that the government suspects of being terrorists.  Christian prevents the group of men from occupying the monastery by demonstrating his knowledge of Islam, and by asking Rabbia to respect their religion as Christian and the other monks respect theirs.  Though Christian refuses to allow Luc to go with Rabbia’s men to treat one of the group members that happens to be wounded, Christian does allow Luc to provide medicine and medical advice to this group of men that the monastery can afford.  When local government officials discover that medical care is dispensed by members of the monastery (without the monks inquiring about the politics of individuals receiving such medical aid), the government withdraws all protection of the monastery.  The monks understand that they are now in danger.  The members debate their situation and some of them argue that they should leave.  However, any dissension among the monks is soon put aside out of concerns for the people living in the community, and the monks democratically and unanimously vote to stay there.  Eventually, the monks are abducted by a militant Islamic group.  After this abduction (which took place sometime in 1996), those monks abducted are never seen from again.  The film ends showing the monks marching single file with their captors through the mountains in the snow.  Two monks (that hid in the monastery) did survive to tell their story.

Filmed in French and directed by Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men is 120 minutes long.  Probably this is too long for those turned off by displays of religious piety, yet without question the dignity and simplicity of the life of such monks is deftly displayed.  The monks exhibit poise and even humor in their day to day interactions with a community that does not share their faith.  The confrontation with Rabbia comes across as authentic rather than forced.  Rabbia may or may not have been involved in the earlier slaughter, but Christian and his monks are able to bring out Rabbia’s humanity.  The acting of Wilson, Lonsdale and Sabrina Ouazani is superb, but then so is the acting of every other member in the cast.

The movie is highly critical of the Algerian government’s approach to the terrorist issue in their methods of fighting the power of the terrorists only with the purpose of maintaining their own power.  It is clear that virtue did not belong in either case to those wielding the power.  The example of the monks provides an alternative vision for the Algerians under their care.  It’s not their religious faith but their tolerance and compassion that make this alternative desirable.  And this film sends a message that communication between two faiths that at first seem so different may be bridged by compassion and decency.

A few critics dismissed Of Gods and Men because they wanted more cynicism.  In their jaded world, cynicism passes for sophistication.  Even Roger Ebert, who does not completely dismiss the film, seems befuddled by the film’s message.  Ebert is troubled by the monks’ decision to stay at the monastery in the face of known danger.  “Did they make the right choice? In their own idealistic terms, yes. In realistic terms, I say no. They have the ability to help many who need it for years to come. It is egotism to believe their help must take place in this specific monastery. Between the eight of them, they have perhaps a century of life of usefulness remaining. Do they have a right to deprive those who need it of their service? In doing so, are they committing the sin of pride?” 

I could see Ebert with this pretzel logic coming to some similar conclusions about the film Schindler’s List.  Why did Oscar Schindler confront Nazi authority to try to rescue 300 members on his list that were inadvertently shipped to Auschwitz when he could instead have been supplied (and thus possibly saved) 300 other workers for his factory that were also facing deportation?   Fortunately, Ebert is a movie reviewer and not someone that others depend upon for their lives. Schindler had made a promise to those he kept on his list just as the Cistercian Trappist monks had made an implicit promise to those in a small Algerian community.  Ebert seems to feel that the monks should have chosen the intelligent (i.e. prudent) course of action rather than one that was courageous and compelling.  What truly would have been the intelligent course of action under such circumstances of course could be debated, but there is no question that the monks chose to take a great risk.  In the face of torture and death by marauding terrorists, I doubt very much that pride had anything to do with the decision that they made.  Yet in a world filled with such danger and risk, what smaller lives we would live if we allowed circumstances to force us to live less beautiful lives.  And that is what Ebert is asking us to consider doing.

Of Gods and Men is a film about genuine greatness of character.  That the film demonstrates this in such a truthful manner demonstrates greatness in storytelling as well – something that is unfortunately rare in the history of moviemaking.

April 23, 2011
©  Robert S. Miller 2011