By Ruairidh MacLean
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Of Gods and Men

This article is over 11 years, 1 months old
Director Xavier Beauvois, From 3 December
Issue 353

Focused on the austere lives of a small monastic community in mid-1990s Algeria, Of Gods and Men dramatises the days leading up to the real-life tragedy that saw seven of their order taken hostage and eventually killed in mysterious circumstances. The film concerns itself primarily with the monks’ choice to remain at Tibhirine at a time when foreigners were coming under attack from paramilitary groups. In the process it calls on us to consider the nature of communalist violence and the meaning of community itself.

One of the great strengths of the film is the light touch with which it handles many of the issues. The natural tone of the film is conveyed through an intimate portrayal of the monks’ ascetic existence. Dialogue is often sparse, with the growing sense of tension among the monks relayed through their increasing despondency, agitation and even the determination with which they go about their daily chores. Even so, some of the most interesting scenes are the moments when the order is portrayed as a tiny organic democracy, with each of the brothers expressing their anxieties and arguing for their positions before a decision is put to the vote. It is difficult not to be touched by these frightened old men as they attempt to reconcile a determination to remain faithful to their way of living with their fear of death.

The film displays a clear awareness of contemporary issues – the first killing mentioned is of a young woman stabbed to death by Mujahideen for her failure to wear the veil. The Algerian who conveys this news makes a knowing reference to the “fuss” being made about the hijab in French schools.

The ambiguities of the film mean it could be seen as commemorating the brutal murder of seven innocent Christians by barbaric Islamists. It would be a shame if this was the case. One of the high points of the film comes when Christian, the head monk, refuses to allow the Algerian army to station troops in the monastery for its protection. Christian remains adamant that the presence of these forces would destroy “the meaning of our community”.

While the monks express their reasons for staying in the language of faith, it becomes increasingly clear that their dedication is ultimately to each other and to the society to which they now belong, where Christians and Muslims live together, respecting and honouring each other’s traditions. At one point an Algerian official warns Christian that his sacrifice will be exploited by racists and imperialists, which has undoubtedly been the case. But I think that the ultimate goal of this film is to reclaim that sacrifice from the warmongers and Islamophobes, and restore it as a testimony to the triumph of human solidarity over intolerance and fear.

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