Monday, July 4, 2011

Of Gods and Men

    "Of Gods and Men" (2010) is one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen. It has won numerous prizes, including the Grand Prix, which is the second most prestigious award of the Cannes Film Festival. It also received the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. The French title, it should be added, is "Des Hommes et des Dieux, which translates as "Of Men and Gods."
    The film opens with a quotation  from Psalm 82:6-7: "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."
    It is not a documentary, but the true story of nine Cistercian (also known as Trappist) monks who lived and worked in a monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria. They enjoyed harmonious relations with their predominantly Muslim neighbors, provided them with medical care, sometimes worshiped with them, but never tried to convert them.
    The story start in 1993 and concludes three years later, when seven of the monks are kidnapped and assassinated, although who was responsible is never explained. The Armed Islamic Group of Algeria claimed full responsibility, but French sources suggest that the killing was a mistake by the Algerian army during a rescue attempt.

     Much of the film shows the monks working and worshiping in the monastery. One Christmas Eve, their peaceful existence is disturbed by some terrorists who want medicines.  When the abbot explains that they need the medicines for the villagers and, moreover, that it is the birthday of the prophet Isa, the terrorists reluctantly leave and even apologize for disturbing the monks.
    The political situation deteriorates further, especially after the killing of several Croatian workers in the area. The authorities urge the monks to go home to France. The monks are told that many Algerians would love to leave, but cannot.
    The monks are divided at first, with some wanting to leave, but the rest preferring to stay. In the end, all vote to stay. They are devoted to serving the people among whom they live. The film reveals the motives of each monk as they explain their vote.
    The last supper scene in which the monks silently sip wine while the overture to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake fills the room is powerful and moving. But then terrorists come and lead seven of the monks away, although two manage to hide and thus save themselves. The final scene show the monks trudging through the snow to their death, but that is not shown.
    The Christian faith is sympathetically portrayed in this film. The monks are motivated by love. In contrast, the terrorists have a different motive. They are not concerned with their fellow Algerians, and even misuse the Qur'an. As Pascal observed centuries earlier: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."
    This film examines in a sensitive way the relations between Christians and Muslims. As these monks demonstrate, Christians and Muslims can live together peacefully. The Islamic terrorists disturb that relationship, but they cannot destroy it.
    These terrorists should not be pictured with a black brush, and the film does not. French colonialism must accept a large share of the blame for the situation in Algeria, and the film does that with only a few small, yet suggestive brush strokes.
    What the film neglects to mention, however, is the way both the French and Algerian governments undermined the results of the democratic election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front. A state of emergency was declared and the second set of elections were canceled. In addition, the Algerian regime used the army and foreign mercenaries to attack men, women, and children, but laid the blame on Islamic groups.
    Is what happened in Algeria a portent of what may happen in North Africa and throughout the Middle East, where Western governments are worried about Islamic parties gaining power as a result of the Arab Spring? I have no answer to that question.
    If you have not yet seen this film, please visit your nearest video store. This is indeed one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen. I am sure you will agree with me.

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