Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Of Gods and Men To stay? To flee?

These were the stark options facing the Trappist monks in 1996 at their monastery in Tibhirine, in the Atlas Mountains, during the Algerian civil war. Many of them having lived in harmony in the midst of a Muslim community since the end of WW2, living from the produce of the land and trading with the locals, their peaceful way of life is abruptly disrupted by the brutal intrusion of the external world, in the shape of the murderous activities of an extremist Islamic organisation, having beheaded a group of Croatian construction workers nearby. The rebels are soon followed by an army as brutal as them, offering their protection to the monks, which they refuse on the ground that they cannot accept the help of a government that they regard as corrupt.

The monks debate the options open to them as the conflict escalates, between their personal safety and their moral duties to the local community. It is Christmas Eve when a group of fundamentalist intrude in their ceremonies, demanding medicines and a doctor. The abbot, Father Christian (Lambert Wilson), refuses their demands; but cites the Koran as a proof of their goodwill. Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi), the rebels' leader, grants the monastery his protection in a show of respect for their integrity, an act that attracts the unwelcome attention and harassment of a hostile army onto the monastery. When Fayattia is killed, that protection vanishes, and most of the monks are kidnapped in the middle of the night, we see them marching in the snow haze up the cold mountain, before we learn of their fate.

Of Gods and Men is a fine example of the tradition of cinéma vérité, almost in the footsteps of Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, the cinematography brilliantly conveying both the serenity of their mountainous location and their peaceful daily life routines, working on the land, preparing jars of honey to sell or barter in the local market, attending the needs and curing the diseases of the local population, participating in their rituals, yet capturing the unnerving presence of the military as the civil conflict escalates, fatally involving them. Father Christian's attempts to cast a fine line between the fundamentalist and the army for them to continue living in the midst of the community, to which they feel a moral duty to serve, had come to an end.

Xavier Beauvois casts a dissecting eye on the resulting brutality of the civil war, a consequence of the participants' humanity being put on hold for the sake of either holding, or gaining power, of their ideologies, as Father Christian brilliantly muses in his final spiritual testament.

The DVD contains interviews to relatives of the monks, and a background to both the conflict and the monks presence in Algeria.

Of Gods and Men DVD is on sale in Britain.

Director: Xavier Beauvois
Writers: Xavier Beauvois (adaptation) (dialogue), Etienne Comar (scenario)
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin

Distributed by Artificial Eye

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