Thursday, 30 December 2010

Of Gods and Men

Most films that set themselves within the context of a living and worshipping Christian community fail to capture the nuances and struggles of what it means to be in Community. This film succeeds.

Based on real events, Xavier Beauvois Directs a film of subtlety and sensitivity that explores the impossibility of tension created when vocational vows are confronted by an opposing fundamentalist ideology. Set in Algeria in 1996 at the monastery of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains, the community of the Cistercian monks are faced with a deep challenge as the legacy of French colonial rule sees the country descend into civil war. As fundamentalist Mujahideen move into the area and take control in a guerilla-style insurgency, the Community struggle to maintain their integrity.

Over the decades, a village has grown up around the monastery and the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The Brothers cultivate their land and sell and barter their spare produce in the village market. The leaders of the local community enjoy a mutually respectful relationship with the monastery and benevolent Islam is seen to find meaningful expression alongside the Christian faith of the Cistercians. The Brothers operate a clinic for local people where Frere Luc dispenses dispenses basic remedies, good advice and second-hand shoes to those in need.

When one of the Mujahideen is wounded, the group's leader storms into the monastery seeking medical supplies. The leader, Frere Christian, asks the armed militants to leave the monastery as it is a place of peace. He also explains that what little they have by way of medicine is for the local Moslem population and not for them. In diffusing the tension, Frere Christian quotes an apt verse from the Koran thereby demonstrating the brotherhood of a shared life of faith.  The Mujahideen leave empty handed but respect has been earned.

The arrival of the armed conflict within the monastery propels the community into disarray. None of the monks seek martyrdom yet some feel a pressing need to move to a safer place elsewhere in Africa or back to France. Frere Christian having been elected leader by the Community now has his leadership tested. What will the community decide? How will Christian exercise leadership? How does the daily rhythm of prayer and work dialogue with the developing and pressing situation? How will Frere Christian deal with the local official who suggests the Monastery might be seen as collaborating with terrorists? What will the outcome be?

It is in exploring these questions and the relational tensions they create within Community that the film delivers an insightful and intimate exploration of the internal and external conflicts that ebb and flow. Beauvois may be guilty of ramping up the tug on the heart strings as the film reaches its climax, but you will never listen to Swan Lake in quite the same way ever again!

This is an excellent film - please do go and see it. I'll give it 8.5/10.

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