Of Gods and Men
- June 19, 2011
I’ve finally got round to watching Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois’s magnificent film about the seven French Trappist monks kidnapped and murdered during the Algerian Civil War in 1994.
At the time the murders were attributed by the Algerian government to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) a shadowy and particularly bloody Islamist organization which killed scores of Algerian civilians during the conflict. The GIA was also heavily penetrated by the Algerian secret services, and there have been a number of compelling allegations that some of its massacres and atrocities were carried on behalf of the military and secret services in order to discredit the Islamist opposition and/or to drive the civilian population to seek ‘protection’ from the same government that was killing them.
Some of these suspicions have also surrounded the killings of the monks. All of them were taken hostage before being found decapitated. In 2009 General Francois Buchwalter, a former French general claimed that an Algerian army helicopter killed the monks during a raid on an Islamist guerrilla camp, and that he was ordered by the French government to keep quiet about it.
Beauvois would have been aware of these allegations when he made the film, but he does not attempt to resolve them. Of Gods and Men is not a mystery or a thriller. It is a deeply moving and humane tribute to the monks, and also a profound meditation on religious faith as a motivator for violence and as a healing force in a society that is being ripped to pieces by a corrupt government and its fanatical and equally merciless opponents.
The film is really an astonishing achievement, whose cumulative emotional impact is realised through still and vigilant camerawork, writing of real sensitivity and subtlety, and outstanding performances by actors who often communicate as much about their feelings and inner thoughts through their eyes and facial expressions as with their actual words and the prayers and songs that punctuate the world of the monastery.
The serenity of the Tibherine monastic community only highlights the atmosphere of menace and danger emanating from the outside world, as the film explores the individual fears and crises of the monks and their ultimate commitment to their faith and the community they serve, which lead them to remain where they are, regardless of the risks. At a time when religion is too often smugly dismissed by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as something inherently primitive, reactionary and backward, the film is a reminder that religious faith is can also be a source of great beauty, grace and humanity.
One of the monks, Dom Christian, wrote these words in the last letter that he wrote before his death:
“I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down. I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.”
This message is quoted in full in the film. Another monk quotes Pascal’s observation that ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction’.
These opposing possibilities are explored in some of the most touching and poignant episodes in world cinema. Towards the end, one of the older monks plays the dying swan theme from Swan Lake, as the monks drink a glass of wine. By this time all of the monks know that they may be killed at any time, and all of them have resolved their personal struggles and found a common sense of fellowship with each other.
The camera observes them from a distance and then moves close up, studying their faces as they smile to themselves and occasionally to each other. The whole scene feels so intimate, so painfully authentic and unforced that you simply lose any sense of ‘art’ or fiction and feel both the weight of the seven lives that will soon be pointlessly lost and also of the world that they will leave behind them.
Like me, many of those who watch this remarkable film may not share the faith that inspired these monks, but their commitment to it is an invitation to the rest of us that we too must find our own truths and meanings as we make our way through what Antonio Gramsci once called ‘this great and terrible world’, whether we find them from religion or some other source.