15 May 2011

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

The world is a dangerous place fraught with peril as humans attack, beat, main and kill other humans in an endless series of wars and reprisals. Nations and individuals flex their power and boast of their ability to handle themselves in a fight. In virtually all cultures violence remains an acceptable answer to violence. Human evolution has been unable to stem the primal acceptance, even the embrace, of kicking ass and taking names.

While soldiers, fighters and their exploits are celebrated, there are pockets of non violent resistance to the notion that might makes right. Some who call for peace -- damn the costs -- are even members of religions that have and still do perpetuate bloodshed in the name of God. In their purest forms, Christianity and Islam, to name two, extol the virtues of peace and love.

Both religions have been twisted to the point of deformity by fundamentalist factions that stray from true principles and wreak havoc. They are blasphemers of the worst sort.

These issues resonated to me throughout the French film Of Gods and Men (2010), which I saw today. A group of eight Trappist Monks, living in an impoverished part of Algeria are threatened by the growing local presence of Islamist terrorists. They must decide whether to stay, return to France, or perhaps find a temporary safe haven. Most of the film concerns itself with that question.

So imagine a movie about an octet of monks who serve a local community. We see them interacting with the locals -- including the local Muslim clerics -- always in positive ways, especially in providing medical help. We also see the monks at prayer, worship meals, tending their garden and carrying out chores. We also watch them discuss and pray about the central decision of whether they should stay. Director Xavier Beauvois has made an appropriately slow, methodical film that perfectly befits the subject matter and story line. I found it totally compelling.

There was a purity, simplicity and honesty about the men that is utterly refreshing. They are true to themselves, to one another and most importantly their faith. These are men who feel that they have been called to a duty -- by God, no less. This piety provides the framework for their lives and the decisions that they make within it.

Of Gods and Men respects the Algerians as well as the monks and acknowledges the terrible cost of French colonialism to and the consequent blowback. It does not flinch from a few quite necessary scenes of violence. The terrorists and the soldiers are not cartoon characters but men carrying out their own missions as they see them. Fully armed of course.

Beauvois has done two things that are common to many great films: he has focused on the faces of people and taken full advantage of expansive scenery. He has allowed the movie to breath.

There is a certain inevitability to decisions and consequences in Of Gods and Men, which is based on an actual incident in 1996. But the journey in the film is what's most interesting. It is a profound statement about men of peace who, while following God's laws, must, through God's guidance, make their own decisions. I can attest to the fact that you need not be a deeply, or even barely, religious person, to appreciate the film.

I hope against all reason that a lot of people will see it in the U.S. (it has won numerous awards, including at Cannes, BAFTA and the European Film Awards). I further hope, again against all odds, that it will further the notion that peace deserves a chance.

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