January 10, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Film is a window onto the soul. It is a way of unpicking human beings, of seeing straight into their eyes. Perhaps it is no surprise that one of the most famous shots is the closeup. Peering into the character's eyes we can get a sense of their anguish, of the bends of that piece of the crooked timber of humanity. Nowhere is this truer than when filming takes on religion. Great film makers from Bresson to Bergman have seen in religion- in particular in European Catholicism and Protestantism a subject which continues the define the fate of the West and the fate of each individaul living in the world. God becomes a character within the cinema: whether it is his silence echoing through Bergman's Winter Light, the greatest film of Calvinist desolation ever made, or his stern adjunction in the films of Bresson, or his unreal presence in those of Rosselini, coming like Christ before the inquisitor. When we think of religion we can think of its departure from this world, a world that Bresson's L'Argent informs us is irredeemably corrupt. Surprisingly Of Gods and Men is a film about monks: it is a film about monks that argues for engagement with the world, for sympathy with it.

Of Gods and Men is a film that concerns itself with a unique situation. We begin and stay inside the monastery for most of the film. THis is a film about the monastery itself and its community. We only go outside that community to establish some central facts. The first fact is the context in which the monastery resides. The local community love the monks. One monk, Luc, functions as the local village's doctor. The other monks are also deeply embedded in this community. Their Christianity is not seen as an impediment for the Muslims around them are committed to toleration. The second context is the threat from outside. We see the murder of some Croats working out in the desert early on in the film and we are always aware that the Islamic Fundamentalist opposition to the government will at some point come and kill these monks. The dilemma becomes the issue of what the monk's duty is. If they go to seek their own safety, are they really cowardly. Is departure an indication that they are neglecting the community that they have helped to nurture: a woman tells them that the villagers are the birds sitting on a tree, the monks are the branch they reside on. But if they stay, is that just as egoist a decision: do they seek martyrdom where they do not need to? Are they spiritually arrogant?

I am not sure I can answer those questions: I have never sat in that position and have no idea, though have a fear, of how I would react. What I think is interesting is the way in which the monks come to their decision. Christian their leader begins by discussing with them as a group and there is rancour and discord. The discussion is closed off by prayer. As the film moves forward, each member of the group struggles to a greater or lesser extent with what the decision means. One monk almost goes mad in his cell, shouting about God having abandoned him in his hour of need. There is actual spiritual anguish here. There is also contemplation. The film is happy to stay with the monks as they make the decision, tracking Christian as he walks through a forest thinking in silence, or shooting another two monks having a trivial argument about the washing up. An argument that is really about less trivial things. You see that as the process of decision happens so the activity of the monastery continues: the men treat the sick, they pray, they talk to the local villagers (there is one touching exchange between a girl on the verge of her twenties and Luc for example). Activity we see is part of this decision: it is part of the prayer that leads them to take their decision.

It is also a coping mechanism. This is a decision but its also a worry. We can see the monks are driven by their need to decide whether to go or to stay, but they are also terrified by their situation. To decide to stay is to take a very brave decision. They are able to deal with this worry through their normal activities. You can see this in two moments. Both are moments of great tension but in both the monks survive because they don a clothing of Catholicism. Firstly when the Islamic Fundamentalists arrive at the monastery in the middle of night asking for medicine: Christian's response is to tell them that guns are not allowed in the monastery. He tells them that the monks will treat any fundamentalist, but they will not move their medicine around for them. He does two other things though: he quotes the Quran to the invaders about Christianity, about the particular kindness of priests and he informs them that the day they invaded is Christmas. Later they bring a wounded comrade to the monastery and Luc treats him. These moments of intersection are moments in which the monks use their monastic principles to quiet their anxiety. Secondly there is a moment in which a helicopter comes over the monastery: the monks fear for their lives, but instead of panicking they go inside the monastery and sing prayers to God. The prayers do not drive the helicopter away- why would they- but they provide a psychological release.

The danger is real. Throughout the film the Algerian government are shown warning the monks. The army arrives to protect them and the monks dismiss it because it interrupts their work. The army commander is keen to restate the dangers. The army take Christian to identify a terrorist leader's body, he does so but shakes his head. The soldier sniffs in contempt. This is not a film which unambiguously takes the side of the monks: the Algerians say at one point, that the reason that Algeria has its problems is its history of colonialism. The view of the monks appears to be that they are as much part of the history of Algeria as anyone else: or rather that they are now part of their monastery and cannot be decoupled from it. Throughout the film you get the sense of the affection between the monks and the land. Perhaps this makes sense in the context of France in Algeria in particular. Its also powerful because it gets to something else about the film: the monks are not aggressively anti-Muslim and neither is the film. We see Algeria through the eyes of the monks, rather than through our own eyes, and it looks to them as though it is a complex society riven by hatred. A complex society which has thrown up a gang of fools but also contains its fair share of saints.

This is a film ultimately about the monks. It is a difficult task as a non-Christian living in a society that forgot monasteries at the reformation to understand the role and function of monastic living. Whether you are a Christian or not, I think what this film does is explain the process of decision making under stress in that kind of a community and open to your eyes a world which dominated Western spirituality right up until the seventeenth century. Walking out of the cinema, one thought flashed into my head: Bergman and Bresson and Rosselini all deal with the role of Christianity in the modern world, after the death of God. This film does not deal with that modernity but another. It takes us to the frontiers of Christendom and positions its deepest questions around the roles of Christians on that frontier. If Bergman and Bresson and Rosselini are in dialogue with Dosteovsky and Vico: then Of Gods and Men speaks of missionaries, martyrdom and forgiveness. Its subject is older, but no less interesting.


James Higham said...

To decide to stay is to take a very brave decision.

Not if they truly believe because then they are taken in hand.