I was glad that I saw Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men on the same day of the Toronto International Film Festival in which I saw Miral. The films, perhaps, balance one another, not in a Fox News faux-balanced agonistic culture sort of way, but rather in the much harder but more precious way of showing that presenting art from a particular perspective doesn’t have to mean bias and prejudice.
Beauvois’s film is about eight Cistercian monks at a monastery in Algeria who must decide, in the wake of violence by Islamic fundamentalists, whether they should stay at their mission or return to France.
The film cares more about the way the men lived than how they died and about how they face the possibility of death than about demonizing those from whom that possibility arises. That is to say, the aspect of the story that most interests Beauvois is the life the monks live that brought them to this place and time. Nowhere is that more clear than in a climactic scene in which the monks share communion together while listening to classical music. As we get snapshots of their faces, we realize how much we’ve learned of them as men by living with them vicariously. We catch a glimpse, however small, of the community they have created and how it could sustain them in the face of difficult decisions.
Like many of the best films about people of faith, the film doesn’t celebratize the characters because of what happens to them. It celebrates their faith because of what it empowers them to do rather than celebrating them for what they did for the faith.
In a corollary vein, the film doesn’t really demonize Islam. The militants wreaking violence on the community identify themselves with Islam, yes, but so too do many of the people the monk serve and live amongst. “Have they never read the Koran?” one villager says of those practicing violence? Neither is Christianity presented as being immune from criticism for violence done its name. An Algerian official, in recommending the monks leave, reminds them of a history of French occupation in that country that contributed to the creation of the soil from whence the current violence sprouted.
But Of Gods and Men is no tortured liberal indictment of Western Christianity that excuses militant violence as mere blowback. Far from it. It is interested in the personal not the political. And if it has a political message it is only when individuals can learn to live at peace with one another can there ever be peace on earth. That peace will always be temporary, but so too is life. “I have lived to long in the world,” a monk writes, “to not know that I am complicit in the creation of the violence that may soon blindly strike me down…”
I am complicit. Not my government nor my religion, but me, my fallen self that lives in the world. And even as I stumble towards the prince of peace and learn to be more like him by trying to love my neighbor as he modeled I should do, the dragons of fear and hate will do their worst to destroy any small step towards a world that reflects, however imperfectly, the love of its creator. That is why, for all the life and death decisions made in the film, my favorite moment was when a frightened monk tells one of his brothers to “fuck off.”
“He’s just tired,” the other monk says to himself and forgives him right readily. Sometimes it is not the great renunciations but the daily ones that are the most precious.