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"Of Gods and Men" is the true 1990s story of a monastery in Algeria which after years of caring for local Muslims is threatened by war between militants and the army.
The movie was acclaimed by critics at Cannes and had audiences in tears.
It is based on the beheading of seven monks in Tibiherine, northern Algeria, in 1996, during Algeria's eight-year civil war between government forces and Islamists.
The film also touches on the sensitive issue of France's history in north Africa, with one Algerian character explicitly blaming colonialists for the social problems which he says gave rise to Islamic extremism in the country.
Here is a snippet from the closing lines of the film, Fr. Christian, the abbot of Notre dame de L'Atlas speaks:
"Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.
That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion.
I've live enough to know, that I am complicit in the evil, that alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly.
I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder.
I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism.
This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They're a body and a soul.
My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who called me naive or idealistic but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, well immerse my gaze in the Father's and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them."
The drama in "Of Gods And Men" centres on the monks' painful moral choice of whether to flee as danger threatens, or stay to support the local people. "It is rare these days in our selfish society that there are people who care for others, who pay attention to the religion of others," Beauvois told a news conference. Speaking to AFP, he also hailed the "faith and rigour" of the real-life monks, played in the film by French actors including top names Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale. "My work with my actors was to make a bunch of people as wonderful as them," he added. "If society had just five percent of people like them, things would be better."
Directed by Xavier Beauvois, Des Hommes et de Dieux “Of Gods and Men” – a meditative film based on actual gruesome events – won a prize at the Cannes film festival for works fostering inter-religious understanding. Judged by an ecumenical jury, the pic recounts the lives and deaths in 1996 of a group of French monks who were massacred and beheaded in a Cistercian monastery Algeria in events that remain mysterious and controversial.
The film’s plot centers on the Catholic monks as they wrestle with whether to flee during a bloody conflict between Algeria’s army and Muslim jihadi insurgents, or to remain in their monastery from which they had ministered to their Muslim neighbors. The statement of the jury declared that "The deep humanity of the monks, their respect for Islam and their generosity towards their village neighbors make the reason for our choice." Moreover, wrote the jury, “This movie of great artistic value benefits from a remarkable group of actors and follows the daily rhythm of work and liturgy." The jury also commended two other films in competition for Cannes’ main prize, "Poetry" by South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong and "Another Year" by Britain's Mike Leigh.
A fratricidal war ensued in Algeria in 1992 when it became clear that a national election would usher in an Islamist government. The army intervened and cancelled the election; the ensuing war claimed the lives of over 200,000 people in a country of 27 million people. Whole villages and families were wiped out by the army and the Islamist insurgents, with each side blaming the other for excesses. In the case of the monks, the insurgents first claimed responsibility for the massacre of the seven monks, but a later claim by a former French military attaché that the Algerian army may have been responsible has since made the tragedy much more mysterious.
The film focuses on the daily lives of the monks as they face the possibility of deadly violence. Featuring prominent French actors Lambert Wilson (The Matrix) and Michael Lambert, directed Beauvois said of the film "What interested me was the story of these men, who they were, and the rest, well, we don’t really know," at a news conference. Beauvois, who also co-wrote the script with Etienne Comar, theorized that the monks’ deaths were the result of a blunder by the Algerian military. "The monks insisted on being extremely neutral, on not taking sides," Comar averred, "They called the terrorists ‘the brothers from the mountain’ and called the people from the army ‘the brothers from the plain.’ … It seems totally coherent for the movie to adopt their point of view."
Beauvois’ chief concern according to reviewers is on the monks’ own inner struggles, rather than the politics surrounding their deaths. Of the film Toronto Star reviewer Peter Howell Of Gods & Men "a beautifully acted and directed work of uplift and inspiration." However, Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter called the film "ponderous."
The movie does not shy away from the violence of the conflict. Indeed, the opening scenes depict Islamist terrorists slitting the throats of Croatian construction workers - friends of the monks. The precariousness of the monks' lives is obvious and lends poignancy to their struggles over their faith as they remain at their monastery to help local villages keep both the Algerian military and Islamist terrorists at bay.
The men debate and pray, and cry out to God to help them keep their faith to accept their eventual decision to stay in Algeria even as their fate becomes clear. Finally, the camera zooms in on their eyes, those windows of the soul where their moral dilemma plays out.
The film was shot in neighboring Morocco, and the director rebuilt a monastery near a town called Meknes to resemble the one that witnessed the murders of the monks in 1996. In Algeria, the security situation remains tense as Islamist terrorists linked to Al Qaeda remain active in the hills. "Some news stories have said that I filmed in Morocco because of security reasons, but in fact, I did not at all. I never had any intention of shooting anywhere else," Beauvois said. Even so, just this week a roadside bomb killed two Algerian soldiers and seriously wounded 18 in an attack blamed upon the Al Qaeda terrorists.
The film conjures up the austerity and peace of the Cistercian monastery where the French monks prayed and contemplated a world that finally consumed them. So closely did Beauvois conjure the life and spirituality of the monks that went on a monastic-like retreat himself in order to get closer to "the beauty of their faith." The actors, led by Lambert Wilson and Michel Lonsdale, also went on retreats to prepare for their roles. Said Wilson, "We sang the liturgical chants, we even became united in this aspiration toward something higher; we felt together as brothers. We even had a monastic consultant." He continued, saying that the film attempts to mirror the monastic life. "Monks live at this rhythm. It's exhausting, and they work, too." Wilson also plays another religious role, a 16th century Huguenot, in a second French film in competition, Bertrand Tavernier's "La Princesse de Montpensier."
Beauvois and Comar said they conducted extensive research into the slayings but intentionally avoided going into too much detail in the movie."We wanted the story to be as universal as possible," Comar said. "References to Algeria are clearly there, but we tried to open the film the most we could." Said Comar, "I had decapitated bodies, models made, but then I knew that was ridiculous. Then unexpectedly, it snowed." The snow provides a metaphor in the final scenes, that moved Comar to say “It happened just at the right moment. It was a state of grace."
In 1996, following the tragedy, Pope John Paul II spoke to the Cistercians (also known as Trappists) while reflecting on the words from the Gospel – “He who loves his life will lose it, while he who hates his life in this world, will keep it for eternal life. If someone wishes to serve me let him follow me, and where I am there also will my servant be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him." (John 12:24-26). Said the pontiff at Tre Fontane in Rome, "At the end of the second millennium, the Church has become once again a Church of martyrs." (Tertio millennio adveniente, n. 37) The witness of the Trappists of Our Lady of Atlas takes its place alongside that of the Bishop of Oran, His Excellency Pierre Lucien Caverie, and of not a few other sons and daughters on the African continent who, during this period, have given their lives for the Lord and for their brothers and sisters, beginning with those who persecuted and killed them. Their witness is the victory of the Cross, the victory of the merciful love of God, who saves the world.”
According to Variety magazine, Sony Pictures Classic has picked up distribution for U.S, Australia and New Zealand release.
Emma Jones of BBC News writes,
Nine monks go about the simple rhythms of their life, in the certain knowledge that they face an imminent death.
Hardly a movie pitch which would have predicted success but Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men was not only runner up at this year's Cannes Film Festival; it 's now the French Oscar entry - as well as taking more than 8m euro at the French box office.
Part of its shocking appeal is that it's based on a real story. In 1996, seven French Cistercian monks were kidnapped and then killed at Tibhirine in Algeria, amidst rising religious and factional violence. Their murderers were never found.
"When it happened, as a nation, France was shocked," says the film's producer Etienne Comar.
"Ten years later in 2006, the same questions resurfaced. Why did it happen? Why did they die? I decided, as a movie, that rather than portray their death, it was more interesting to show them living. There is no answer to their deaths."
"We can be absolutely sure that whoever kidnapped them, they did so for political reasons, not for their faith” -- Director Etienne Comar
In the movie version, the group of French Brothers live a simple life dispensing medicine and comfort to their poor Muslim neighbours. As the countryside is terrorised by armed Islamic fundamentalists, there is an order for all foreigners to leave the country.
Do the monks leave, or do stay to protect their flock, knowing that they are an inevitable target?
"It is a very current film," comments Comar. "It's interesting to look at this atrocity as it happened before 9/11 - all the signs of what was to come were there.
"When I re-read again the last testimony of the monks' leader, Brother Christian, he was very aware of the co-habitation of Muslim and Christian neighbours. He seemed to have a sense that it was going to become a talking point.
"Now it is an important issue wherever in the world you live - the USA, France, the UK, the Middle East. I want this film to ask, 'what is the next step?' How can we live in peace with each other? What dialogue should we have?"
Ironically, the movie was filmed in Morocco, in a monastery south of Fez, which in the 1960s was used by a Benedictine order as a meeting point between Christians and Muslims.
In the film, the monks and their neighbours co-exist in enviable friendship and harmony.
"We can be absolutely sure that whoever kidnapped them, they did so for political reasons, not for their faith," adds Comar. "The problem is never the faith, it is always the politics behind the faith."
Director Xavier Beauvois and his cast were sent to live in an actual monastery to prepare for the difference in the rhythm of monastic life.
"I also asked them to sing together," said their producer. "Some of them had never done it before, and you would be surprised. It created a community, so by the time we actually came to shoot the film, there was a real sense of brotherhood."
Viewers see the monks going about their daily business: praying, singing, healing the sick, cooking in the most unhurried, un-modern fashion. Yet hanging over them is a sense of sickening tension as events reach their conclusion.
Some of the scenes - where the men share a supper as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake plays in the background, or as the community sing to drown out the threatening whir of military helicopters, are heartbreakingly beautiful.
"I hope people will respond to it as a very universal film," muses Comar.
"The question, whether to stay or to leave a situation, is one everyone can relate to. Every one of these monks made a personal decision to stay, and it was very courageous. I don't know if I could have done the same. Yet they say, 'there is no better proof of love than to die for people.'"
As well as the critics, Of Gods and Men has found praise with both the Bishops Conference of France and the French Council of Muslim Faith. But the most important critic for the film-makers must have been one of the survivors of the tragedy.
"Two of the brothers escaped being kidnapped, and one of them, Brother Jean-Pierre, is still alive.
"He is an old man of 87 now, and was unable to come to the cinema to see the film. But we sent him a DVD, and we recently received a letter from him.
"He said he liked it a lot - he could see the community of the brothers once more. He said it gave him peace to see them again."