Saturday, 4 December 2010

Of Gods and Men

Save us, Lord, whilst we watch!
Keep us, Lord, whilst we sleep!
And we shall watch with Christ
And we shall rest in peace…

It’s hard to believe that a film about seven Cistercian monks living in a remote monastery in Algeria, five of whom were murdered by Islamic extremists in 1995 ever made it past the financiers to the screen. Of Gods and Men did and then went on to win the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and became an overnight sensation in that most secular of countries, France. If nothing else, this catalogue of unexpected success is a small miracle.

The screenwriter, Etienne Comar, has taken the historical facts about this monastic community and with, Xavier Beauvois, the director, transformed them through the alchemy of art into something that explores “the dignity of difference” and how God “takes the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness to Him.” Neither Comar or Beauvois would describe themselves as “believers” in any conventional sense, but with an utter lack of irony, they have dared to combine secular interests and spiritual truths in such a way that an audience is given creative permission to glimpse a reality that lies beyond empirical measure or psychological explanation. Few films have managed to achieve this – Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, Alain Cavalier’s Therese – but Of Gods and Men does partly because it approaches its subject matter with a reverence and sense that our lives are imbued with a meaning, a Braille that can only be deciphered with the most sensitive, finely tuned spiritual touch. Quoted in The Times newspaper, Beauvois comments:

“I never wanted it to be a Catholic film. It comes from left and right; it is about men more than about gods. But it is true that something in this story resonates with people. The culture of crashing banks, conspicuous consumption, and others working hard for less and less, all those problems mean people want breathing space for a few hours, an escape. They have a need for growth, spirituality, silence...Nowadays it’s rare to die for what you believe in, to have conviction and passion...”

The film opens with a question that echoes for the remaining 121 minutes running time. The monastery’s elderly monk medic, Brother Luc (played with a rugged earthiness and generosity by Michael Lonsdale) is asked by a young woman if he has ever been in love. “Many times,” he replies ruefully, “but then I found a greater love.” It is the question of what makes for a vocation, a love that one is prepared to sacrifice all other loves for that becomes the main centre of interest for Beauvois. The film eschews pious melodrama or political rhetoric. Instead, it is the life of faith both at the communal and individual level that provides the film with its existential drive. The film's soundtrack, used to sublime effect, are the hymns and chants of the Divine Office that mark human time with resonances of the eternal.

We are privy to each brother’s response to the question of whether collectively they should stay (with the inevitability that they will be murdered) or leave and save themselves. On the one hand, Brother Luc says, “I’m not scared of terrorists, even less the army. I’m not scared of death. I am a free man.” At the same time, the much younger Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) is tormented by the decision he is being forced to make. “Help me. Help me,” he cries to God in the dead of night, as his fellow brothers listen from their cells. Community life exists to support the brothers in friendship and sustain them by the rhythms of prayer, but ultimately the life of faith remains an individual response to a terrifying gift.

Nowhere is this struggle explored more poignantly than in the monastery’s Abbot, Christian (Lambert Wilson). The final decision weighs heavy on him. He understands that if the community stays that this will inevitably lead to the deaths of the men he loves. In a scene of fatherly tenderness, he says to Brother Christophe that by entering the order, “you've already given your life”. In accepting to follow Christ, Christian recognises that he and his brothers have already laid down their lives and that they can no longer be defeated by any earthly power. “To leave is to die”, as one other brother remarks. But their commitment is not to the place but to their vocation. This commitment is total because it is not to acquiesce to an idea or philosophy, but to surrender to a person that can be known and loved - Jesus. In a final voice over, Abbot Christian says, “This country and Islam for me..are a body and soul...God willing, I will merge my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with Him His children of Islam, as He sees them.”

Too much cinema today operates at the emotive level, as a desperate form of distraction. Of Gods and Men possesses a quiet intensity and passion, combined with a directness of storytelling, that has engaged audiences at an interior level and brought them to tears. It releases a depth charge into the very soul of man and stirs from the silt of our beings something that is irresistible and hard to ignore, no matter how hard we may try. You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate what a tremendous piece of film making this is, you just have to be human.

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