I watched Of Gods and Men the same week the news was filled with images of exultation at the killing of Osama bin Laden. The journey from Jon Stewart’s testosterone-driven treatment of bin Laden’s death on the Daily Show to the Trappist monks’ steely, faith-filled response to the violence of Algeria in the late nineties was instructive. How easy it is to descend to ugly gloating but thankfully, how possible it is also to rise to our finer impulses.
There is nothing pious or preachy about Of Gods and Men. But there is no mistaking the intuition of the Divine and the commitment to the sacredness of life that these Trappist monks attest to wherever they encounter it. They are unflinching in facing the call of the divine in the poverty of the villagers they serve, even in the lives of those who threaten them with violence. In a particularly memorable exchange, the monks speak of themselves as birds perched uncertainly on a branch. The Muslim villagers who look to the monks as a critical, sometimes life-saving element of their lives, point out that the monks are the branch on which the villagers balance their uncertain lives.
The film makes it clear that in post-colonial Algeria, it is very hard to pin down responsibility for the violence that wracks the country. It stretches back to the sins of colonization but it continues in the civil war that pits the military against the Islamic militia fighting for the electoral victory that had been taken from them with the annulment of the general elections.
The victims then, as the victims now in the so-called war on terror, are the poor who are served neither by their governments nor by those who wage war in their name.
Director Xavier Beauvois and producer Etienne Comar who co-wrote the taut but eloquent script, give us much more than just the story we already know of monks being killed in Algeria. It’s a compelling story: the journey the French monks took to get them to where each made the commitment to stay despite the certainty that harm was knocking on their doors. But more than that it is a testament to the power of faith to rescue us from our lesser selves.
Giving into the savagery of dancing on the graves of our enemies is another kind of violence, not so much to others, but to ourselves.