Tuesday, April 5, 2011

“Of Gods And Men”: Piety Stretched To The Limit

“Of Gods and Men,” a profound and moving meditation on faith and violent conflict by French director Xavier Beauvois, is set during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. At the time, the Front Islamique du Salut won initial elections, followed by a military coup that nullified the results. The conflict resulted in atrocities and massacres by radical Islamists and the Algerian military.

The film is based on a true account of French Cistercian Trappist monks who try to maintain their way of life in the face of the growing threat to it. The slaughter of Croatian workers is the first gruesome sign of the militants’ determination to rid the country of all they deem to be outsiders. Despite an ominous visit by the militants to the monks’ abbey, as well as debates among the monks as to whether they should leave, they decide to stay. The monks continue to provide medical services to the community, sell their honey, till their fields, pray and chant, and live respectfully among the rural Muslim population. There are villagers who appreciate them as a buffer from terror–a buffer that doesn’t last. On the other hand, a government official who urges them to leave sees them as a vestige of the French colonialism that ruled Algeria and left enduring conflict in its wake (see my review of “A Savage War of Peace,” an outstanding study of the Algerian-French war).

To the more secular minded, the religious motivations of both the militants and the monks are baffling. Of course, many wonder how those who are supposedly committed to religious precepts can engage in gruesome acts against other human beings–and the conclusion is usually reached that they are twisting such precepts to their own purposes. On the other hand, the head monk, Christian, prays for the soul of a terrorist who employed torture–a degree of compassion beyond the abilities of many, including an Algerian soldier angered by it. Christian even forgives in advance those who threaten the lives of the monks. His ultimate fate and that of his fellow monks leave one in awe of their piety while questioning its extent.

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