Saturday, April 23, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Christian-Muslim Love

By John W. Kiser
April 8th, 2011

The recent opening across the United States of the much praised French film “Of Gods and Men” is an important event. As a fraternal love story wrapped in a horror story, it offers much reason for hope, as well as room for despair, depending on the lens of the viewer.

My lens is one of hope, based on six years of research and writing “The Monks of Tibhirine,” the book French director Xavier Beauvois called his “bible” for making his movie about Christian-Muslim friendship. My hope is also based on knowing the back story that goes untold in an otherwise excellent film focusing on the monks’ struggle to be true to their Trappist vows of poverty, charity, and stability when faced with their fear of a brutal death.

Some people today might say that Christian-Muslim love is an oxymoron. Yes, there are Muslims who preach hatred of the Christian West, even though fewer and fewer in the West (outside the US) are practicing or even professing Christians. There are no Muslims I have heard of who preach hatred or even disrespect for Jesus Christ, who is a much revered and sinless prophet in Islam.

There is, however, an active Christian minority that preaches hatred of Islam and regularly insults the Prophet Muhammad. Elements with political agendas on both sides benefit from blackening the other, and the media have been willing accomplices to this downward phobic spiral. “Of Gods and Men” is film that could help right perceptions.

Despite pleas in 1996 from both French and Algerian authorities to leave for a safer place when threatened by Islamic extremists, the monks remained at their remote monastery in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains out of deep sense of commitment to their extended family of villagers who depended on them for moral, medical, and material support. Like their neighbors, the monks trembled with fear at night. They argued among themselves: does the Good Shepherd abandon his flock when the wolves come? Does a mother abandon a sick, infectious child? Does their vow of poverty allow for them to flee to safer ground when their friends cannot?

When seven of the monks were kidnapped, it was not their neighbors who did it. Instead, it was a contract job that employed a group from outside the area to take the monks away from their dangerous situation—to be traded, in effect. But something went wrong along the way. Of one thing I am certain: killing them was not the plan. If that had been the case, they would not have been schlepped around the country for two months nor would negotiations for their release have taken place. Yet for some viewers, I suspect this will be seen as simply another “bad-Muslims-kill–good-Christians” story—exactly what the abbot of the monastery feared when he wrote his last testament, read at the end of the film.

The film works very well dramatically as a struggle between faith and fear. By necessity it leaves out important and broader story components. The tenacious commitment of Abbot Christian de Chergé (played by Lambert Wilson) to serve God in Algeria had been formed in him as a soldier serving in the French army during the Algerian war for independence from 1954 to 1962, when his life was saved by a Muslim friend, an Algerian policeman named Mohammed who faced down local rebels who wanted to shoot Christian one day when they were taking a walk—a time when they would discuss their faith.

That friendship cost the Algerian his life the next day. For Christian, Mohammed’s sacrifice was a gift of love reinforcing his belief that the spirit of Jesus Christ resides in all his children. For the rebels, the friend of my enemy is my enemy.

The film doesn’t have room to tell about the seventy-plus imams who, based on the same logic, were assassinated in the 1990s for denouncing what the terrorists were doing in the name of Islam. The terrorists themselves could show respect for the monks. In a dramatic scene in the film, Saya Attia, head of the terrorist group that intruded upon the monastery on Christmas Eve 1993 with demands for medical help, apologizes to Christian for disturbing their celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Left out are the leader’s final words to Christian when he extends a hand in friendship: “We don’t consider you foreigners…you are religious.”

Nor does the viewer know that the tiny hamlet of Tibhirine was inhabited by families whose homes in the mountains had been bombed by the French during the war for independence. They had fled to the protection of the monastery, a holy place where the Christian “marabouts” (Arabic for religious teachers) sheltered them until they could build their own homes.

I have one regret about the film. It might have ended on a more positive note for Christian-Muslim relations by showing the genuine remorse of much of the Algerian population. Archbishop Henri Teissier of Algiers received sacks of letters from ordinary Algerians after the monks’ deaths were confirmed. The letters expressed a deep sense of solidarity with the monks as well as a sense of shame that was captured by this one: “No matter what has happened, we truly love you. You are part of us. We have failed in our duty—to protect you, to love you. Forgive us…You must accomplish your divine mission with us. I believe it is God’s plan.”

Universal fraternal love is the essence of Christianity and all true religion. Otherwise, religion degenerates into celestial nationalism. Christian himself frequently said that if religion doesn’t help us to live together, it is worthless.

The idea may seem laughably naïve in a post-9/11 world. Love, however, has nothing to do with sentiment and everything to do with good will, justice, empathy, and respect for others. Like their Savior, the monks’ lives were not taken. They were gifts of love.

John W. Kiser is the author of “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria” (St. Martins Press, 2002).

A moving story of deep faith and service

BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN - News & Observer Staff Writer
April 22, 2011

You can't hope for a joyful ending when "Of Gods and Men" begins with a quotation from Psalm 82 of the Bible: "You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men and fall like one of the princes."

The French, for whom this movie was first intended, already knew what occurred when terrorists swarmed a Trappist monastery in Algeria in 1996. But director Xavier Beauvois, who wrote the script with producer Etienne Comar, wanted to set the tone from the beginning for the rest of us. His picture is not about its tragic destination, but the compelling journey French monks make en route.

I can't recall the last film that so wholly, honestly and movingly explained what it means to be a Christian: to doubt, to struggle with your conscience, to be afraid of failure and pain but press on, to be disgusted with elements of humanity but forgive its transgressions, to serve God's will as you perceive it while your safety is threatened.

Varied viewpoints

These Christians mean different things to people near them. To Algerian neighbors in their small town, they're a source of free medicine and advice, not to mention homemade jam sold at a local market. To a government official who's supposed to protect them, they're a headache.

To the local army captain, who knows they succor anyone in need, they're an aid to terrorism. And to the fundamentalist jihadists, these monks become many things: a willing or unwilling source of supplies, a mysterious force to be respected, a bargaining tool in times of war.

These jihadists slash the throats of Croatian construction workers for no reason at the start of the story. So when Christian (Lambert Wilson) gathers his brothers in Christ to discuss what to do, they know they're not all likely to survive if they stick around.

At that point, I wondered why they'd even need to discuss whether to stay. Their deaths wouldn't shame the rebels, inspire citizens nearby or change the behavior of people elsewhere on Earth.

Why not go someplace else and keep healing the sick and counseling the troubled? In time, the film provides the answer: God called them to serve here to the ends of their abilities, maybe unto death.

The decision to remain is easy for 80-ish Luc (Michael Lonsdale), whose full life has left him ready to go. ("I'm a free man," he declares.) But younger Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) doubts the value of this ultimate sacrifice and wrestles aloud with the Lord, like Jesus in Gethsemane.

No sermons

The picture never takes an anti-Islamic turn. Peaceful Muslim villagers love these men and loathe the machine-gun wielding fanatics, though they live in paralyzing fear and dare not risk their families by helping the authorities.

Yet the film never has the slightest whiff of a sermon. It's well-acted and handsome to look at through the lens of cinematographer Caroline Champetier. Beauvois shows us the monks' slow, quiet daily lives without letting the story drag; if most of us could never live in this remote, unchanging place, we see why these men might enjoy it.

They also enjoy secular pleasures: humble food well prepared, or Tchaikovsky's music on a boombox. (It's a snippet from "Swan Lake," another story about transformation into a purer self.)

If the monks are not like us, they are like what we could be if we followed Christ's teachings in a literal way. When a letter by one of them is read near the end in voice-over, it touches however much of the divine spirit is left in any of us.

Of Gods and Men: monastic murder mystery

A haunting film about a group of monks whose faith is tested in the most terrifying way has become a surprise hit in France. Jasper Rees talks to its writer .

By Jasper Rees
The London Telegraph
05 Nov 2010

One of the big hits in French cinemas this autumn has defied all known box-office rules. Of Gods and Men is an all-male film about religion or, more specifically, religions. It’s set in, of all the uncinematic locations, a Cistercian monastery in North Africa, from which it derives its muted aesthetic tone and careful pace. Its ultimate theme is the price of Christian faith. But, before anyone of a secular bent crosses it off their to-see list, please be advised that it is as gripping as it is heart-rending.

Of Gods and Men is based on events that took place in Algeria in the mid-1990s. This was the period in the country’s history when Islamic fundamentalism had started to introduce severe instability. Among their many victims, roving militants were targeting foreign nationals. As a result, a Cistercian abbey, a benign remnant of French colonialism in a village called Tibehirine in the Atlas Mountains about 60 miles from Algiers, came under threat, and for three years the small group of eight monks lived in fear of their lives.

On one level it would be desirable not to reveal their fate. The experience of watching the narrative unfold in ignorance of its haunting denouement adds an extra layer to the film. That privilege was not vouchsafed to French audiences. “In France, they took it as a tragedy because they knew the end,” says Etienne Comar, the film’s co-author and producer. Regrettably, it’s impossible to discuss the reasons for the film’s impact without the following spoiler.

Precisely what happened has never been established. But, in 1996, the heads of seven monks were found not far from Tibehirine. There is still no proof – a French inquiry was inconclusive – but their murderers are presumed to have been Islamic fundamentalists, although the film also alludes to the reality that the monks were also at loggerheads with Algerian security forces.

So the power of Of Gods and Men is located less in an opaque ending than in the intensely moving agonies of doubt endured by the monks as instinctive fear of death tests their faith to the limit. Should they give in to threats and leave? Or should they trust in God to deliver them from evil?

Comar, whose regular job in film is as a producer, began working on the script in 2006 . “I was fascinated by this epic drama they were living out, which was quite universal. It was the Christ Passion but also a story about faith, humanity, politics and religion. It was evident that it could be a very powerful tragedy.”

He worked on it for two years, keeping Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai quietly in the back of his mind, then reworked it with the director Xavier Beauvois, who promptly excised the back stories explaining why some of the men had chosen the monastic life. “It was too psychological,” concedes Comar, “but I was fascinated because they had had incredible lives. Some were students in ’68, others were workers in Marseilles on the docks, one was a mayor in Savoie. Two were in the Algerian war.”

As is revealed in an afterword, two monks managed to escape abduction. (Although the monastery had only eight residents, a visiting brother had arrived a few days before from another abbey in North Africa.) One of them is still alive at 87. Comar visited him in his Moroccan monastery. “He is still traumatised. We didn’t discuss the subject, but it’s absolutely something he can’t forget. After that everybody told him he needed to come back to France, but he wanted to stay in a Muslim country as a continuation of what he had done in Tibehirine.” Not long before production started, they also met the monks’ families.

“We didn’t want to go and see them too early because we didn’t want to mix their point of view into what we were doing, because it’s not a historical piece. Some of them were quite questioning, saying that 14 years is too soon.” But when they saw it, says Comar, they were “relieved”.

A process of fictionalising happens with all films based on real events. In the case of Of God and Men, it mainly meant blurring the identity of the country. The filmmakers’ motives for doing so remain open to interpretation. Could it be taken as a sign of lingering French colonialism that, in dramatising a period of turmoil that claimed 150,000 Algerian lives, the victims in this narrative are all French?

“This is a very problematic question,” says Comar. “I can imagine it can be taken like that, but this is absolutely not the purpose of the film. The monks were not missionaries. It would be very difficult to tell a story about people who tried to convert. It’s more a testimony of the love they had for this country. It’s more a message of peace and friendship and humanity between France and Algeria than a discourse about colonialism.”

Another of the imaginary elements of the film takes place near the end. The cast spent time in an abbey in Savoie to familiarise themselves with monastic life. They also learnt to sing the psalms that play the role of a kind of Greek chorus. Comar invented a scene, designed to illustrate the monks’ spirit of community, in which they would sing Jacques Brel, as the monks did when washing dishes.

“Xavier phoned and said, 'They are tired of singing. This moment will be something more contemplative. They will be listening to something.’ He had the idea of "Swan Lake" but didn’t say anything to the actors, and then the day of shooting he said, 'No, it’s changed and we’re going to put some music on that will make you laugh and cry.’” The resulting scene, symbolically featuring bread and wine, is the moral and emotional heart of a remarkable film.


How Catholic is "Of Gods and Men"? -

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