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OF GODS AND MEN, France, 2010
Dir Xavier Beauvois

Of Gods and Men is, visually, a beautiful film. It is set in a landscape that is ravishingly beautiful and it turns on the rhythm of monastic life, which has its own beauty (despite the dreary melodies that the modern French Roman Catholic Church uses for its offices). The acting is restrained and subtle. We see very convincingly portrayed the growth of fear and anxiety as the monks realise the danger they are in in the atmosphere of terror that prevailed in Algeria in the 1990s. The theme of the film is how that fear turns into the recognition that, as monks who have chosen to die to the world, they cannot run away from death. It is a great theme that of itself would justify the making of the film.
But my admiration for the film was still accompanied by a feeling of disgust.
In the 1990s, the Algerian people lived through a trauma that destroyed many thousands of lives and still remains without any clear explanation. In the aftermath of independence, Algeria was a flagship to the Arab world. It looked like a success story, a model of what Socialism could do to create a sense of national purpose in what had previously been a morally devastated French dependency.
Then the Algerian government embarked on a liberalisation of the economy (very profitable as these things tend to be for members of the government) followed by what were supposed to be democratic reforms. Then the country collapsed into chaos, partly (but this is by no means the whole story) fuelled by Muslim groups who had received their intellectual and military training in the context of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.
I'm not suggesting that the film needed to present any sort of political overview of the events it shows but this was a huge, and specifically Algerian drama. The fate of the French monks, while certainly attracting a lot of attention in France (I happened to be living there at the time) was marginal to it, a horrid event among a huge number of horrid events. Of Gods and Men leaves us with the impression that is conveyed by so many western films concerning dramas in other parts of the world. Real human life is western, in this case French; and the life and traumas of the natives is contingent, a backdrop.
In fairness it has to be said that the film avoids a simple characterising of the Islamists as villains. If anything, they are portrayed quite sympathetically and it is the Algerian army that is shown unfavourably - notably and powerfully in the scene when the monks attempt to continue their prayer life while an army helicopter hovers noisily overhead. Happy, though, the monks who only had to endure that for what appears to be a few minutes as opposed to, say, the people of Gaza who have it as the permanent accompaniment of their lives.
Even this - army bad, Islamists not so bad - is a rather facile oversimplification. I was living with Algerians in the early 90s and at that time establishing the responsibility of the army, including responsibility for atrocities attributed to the Islamists, was a difficult thing to do. The French media began to discover the wickedness of the army once the situation had begun to settle a bit later in the 90s, and government and army were behaving more responsibly.
So although the film avoids the caricature we may have expected from the publicity ('In the face of terror their greatest weapon was faith') it is still caricature. The Algerians fall into three broad categories: Islamists who even appear rather noble and are surprisingly susceptible to the spiritual courage and charisma of the monks - leaving their undoubted viciousness in other circumstances difficult to explain; state forces who are corrupt and become threatening once their offers of help are refused; and ordinary villagers who seem to exist for the purpose of expressing their humble appreciation of and dependence on the goodness of the monks. Which is the main theme of the film. The goodness, humanity and heroic struggle of the only characters in the film who happen to be French.
We learn, incidentally, from a documentary that comes with the DVD, that the monastery had an Algerian doorkeeper. He seems to have been airbrushed out of the movie.
In sum, then, a beautiful and moving film that leaves a bit of a bad aftertaste when you start thinking about it.