This is a French film by Xavier Beauvois with numerous awards to its name, including the Grand Prix at Cannes, 2010. The French title is Des homes et des dieux. ‘A powerful film’ is a well-worn cliché but in this case the accolade is totally apposite.
In Australia, we are very lucky because art house cinema still flourishes (we have art house multiplexes as well as the mainstream variety) and they largely cater for foreign language cinema and so-called independents. When I was in America 10 years ago, I noticed that art house cinema was on the verge of extinction and David Lynch even commented on its dire state at a press conference. I expect that a movie like this would only be seen in American cinema, at a film festival, despite the awards it has already received. More’s the pity because Beauvois’ film deserves a wider audience, especially when he tackles stereotypical perceptions on religion.
The film is based on real events, set in early 90s Algeria following the assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf in 1992. The militant entity, Groupe Islamique Armee, took advantage of the vacuum to wage a Taliban-like war against ordinary Muslims. The film’s narrative, however, centres on a group of Cistercian Trappist monks, known as the Monks of Tibherine, living and working in a monastery in the Atlas Mountains, 90k south of Algiers. They live an almost Franciscan lifestyle and they are an organic part of the community, which is entirely Muslim, from what we see.
It’s obvious, from the rise of Islamique Armee, that the monks are at grave risk – an early scene shows Croatians at a nearby construction site being massacred. It’s the only scene of violence in the movie, the remainder happens off-screen, but it sets the scene, juxtaposing a violent jihad against the monastic life of the monks and the ordinary village life of their neighbours. At first they are offered armed protection, but the leader, Brother Christian, refuses on the grounds that the monastery can never harbour weapons, even for protection. They are requested in very strong terms to leave by the government, but this they also refuse to comply with, believing that to leave would be a betrayal to their community. As one woman says: ‘We are the birds and you are the branch; if you leave we fall’.
This is a deeply psychological film, whereby each member of the monastery undergoes their own journey as to how they deal with the prospect of an imminent and violent death, and how it challenges their faith and their principles. This is a film where each and everyone of us can step into their shoes and ask ourselves the same questions – it’s a bloody good film.
But there is a wider message here that is very pertinent to the current climate on religion, and Islamic religion in particular. This movie is a very relevant and powerful antidote to the simplistic black-and-white view of religion espoused by people like Dawkins and Harris, who really get up my nose. From what I’ve seen of Hitchens, he exhibits a more flexible and informed point of view, despite having the most acerbic tongue. Harris and Dawkins talk exactly like politicians, who know their constituency and their agenda; Hitchens, less so.
This movie is about courage, both physical and moral, and the beliefs that people draw on when they are really tested. This is a movie that depicts religion at its worst and at its best. It completely annihilates the black-and-white view of religion that we are currently being asked to consider.