"Of God's and Men" ("Des Hommes et des Dieux")

Many of my confrères in France have been to see this film and unanimously sing its praises. It won the Grand Prix (2nd prize) award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and it charts the dramatic events during the final days of a French-founded Cistercian monastery in Tibehirine, Algeria. I was studying in Paris when these real-life events took place (the mid-'90s) and they were front page news for a good while afterwards. Sounds like the film does a very good job, although the heading for the article is rather misleading ("monastic murder mystery". It is so much more than that.

It comes out in Britain on Dec. 3rd.


Of Gods and Men: monastic murder mystery

A haunting film about a group of monks whose faith is tested in the most terrifying way has become a surprise hit in France. Jasper Rees talks to its writer.

By Jasper Rees 11:12AM GMT 05 Nov 2010

One of the big hits in French cinemas this autumn has defied all known box-office rules. Of Gods and Men is an all-male film about religion or, more specifically, religions. It’s set in, of all the uncinematic locations, a Cistercian monastery in North Africa, from which it derives its muted aesthetic tone and careful pace. Its ultimate theme is the price of Christian faith. But, before anyone of a secular bent crosses it off their to-see list, please be advised that it is as gripping as it is heart-rending.

Of Gods and Men is based on events that took place in Algeria in the mid-1990s. This was the period in the country’s history when Islamic fundamentalism had started to introduce severe instability. Among their many victims, roving militants were targeting foreign nationals. As a result, a Cistercian abbey, a benign remnant of French colonialism in a village called Tibehirine in the Atlas Mountains about 60 miles from Algiers, came under threat, and for three years the small group of eight monks lived in fear of their lives.

On one level it would be desirable not to reveal their fate. The experience of watching the narrative unfold in ignorance of its haunting denouement adds an extra layer to the film. That privilege was not vouchsafed to French audiences. “In France, they took it as a tragedy because they knew the end,” says Etienne Comar, the film’s co-author and producer. Regrettably, it’s impossible to discuss the reasons for the film’s impact without the following spoiler.

Precisely what happened has never been established. But, in 1996, the heads of seven monks were found not far from Tibehirine. There is still no proof – a French inquiry was inconclusive – but their murderers are presumed to have been Islamic fundamentalists, although the film also alludes to the reality that the monks were also at loggerheads with Algerian security forces.

So the power of Of Gods and Men is located less in an opaque ending than in the intensely moving agonies of doubt endured by the monks as instinctive fear of death tests their faith to the limit. Should they give in to threats and leave? Or should they trust in God to deliver them from evil?

Comar, whose regular job in film is as a producer, began working on the script in 2006 . “I was fascinated by this epic drama they were living out, which was quite universal. It was the Christ Passion but also a story about faith, humanity, politics and religion. It was evident that it could be a very powerful tragedy.”

He worked on it for two years, keeping Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai quietly in the back of his mind, then reworked it with the director Xavier Beauvois, who promptly excised the back stories explaining why some of the men had chosen the monastic life. “It was too psychological,” concedes Comar, “but I was fascinated because they had had incredible lives. Some were students in ’68, others were workers in Marseilles on the docks, one was a mayor in Savoie. Two were in the Algerian war.”

As is revealed in an afterword, two monks managed to escape abduction. (Although the monastery had only eight residents, a visiting brother had arrived a few days before from another abbey in North Africa.) One of them is still alive at 87. Comar visited him in his Moroccan monastery. “He is still traumatised. We didn’t discuss the subject, but it’s absolutely something he can’t forget. After that everybody told him he needed to come back to France, but he wanted to stay in a Muslim country as a continuation of what he had done in Tibehirine.” Not long before production started, they also met the monks’ families.

“We didn’t want to go and see them too early because we didn’t want to mix their point of view into what we were doing, because it’s not a historical piece. Some of them were quite questioning, saying that 14 years is too soon.” But when they saw it, says Comar, they were “relieved”.

A process of fictionalising happens with all films based on real events. In the case of Of God and Men, it mainly meant blurring the identity of the country. The filmmakers’ motives for doing so remain open to interpretation. Could it be taken as a sign of lingering French colonialism that, in dramatising a period of turmoil that claimed 150,000 Algerian lives, the victims in this narrative are all French?

“This is a very problematic question,” says Comar. “I can imagine it can be taken like that, but this is absolutely not the purpose of the film. The monks were not missionaries. It would be very difficult to tell a story about people who tried to convert. It’s more a testimony of the love they had for this country. It’s more a message of peace and friendship and humanity between France and Algeria than a discourse about colonialism.”

Another of the imaginary elements of the film takes place near the end. The cast spent time in an abbey in Savoie to familiarise themselves with monastic life. They also learnt to sing the psalms that play the role of a kind of Greek chorus. Comar invented a scene, designed to illustrate the monks’ spirit of community, in which they would sing Jacques Brel, as the monks did when washing dishes.

“Xavier phoned and said, 'They are tired of singing. This moment will be something more contemplative. They will be listening to something.’ He had the idea of Swan Lake but didn’t say anything to the actors, and then the day of shooting he said, 'No, it’s changed and we’re going to put some music on that will make you laugh and cry.’” The resulting scene, symbolically featuring bread and wine, is the moral and emotional heart of a remarkable film.

'Of Gods and Men’ is released on Dec 3


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