“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.”
‘Of Gods and Men’, directed by Xavier Beauvois in 2010, is a French drama based on the true story about a group of Trappist monks in Algeria who find themselves caught in the Algerian Civil War of the late 1990s. The film follows the life of the monks leading up to their kidnapping by Islamic terrorists, it focuses on their quiet lives of contemplation, work and care for the local community and also presents their indecision about what to do when they discover their lives are at risk. Ultimately, the majority of them elect to remain to support the village next to their monastery, a decision that leads to a final act that is both heart-breaking and life-affirming. The film is a simple and austere one, much like the lives of the monks it presents. There is no non-diegetic music and the camera work is straightforward, almost Robert Bresson like. The story is mostly told through the faces of the monks, close-ups on their reactions and on their compassionate acts towards each other, towards the villagers and, tellingly, towards the terrorists themselves. Like ‘The Way’, this is a film that depicts the positives of Catholicism and resists adding drama through corruption. It feels like a clean story, an old-fashioned martyrdom. The characters are presented as distinctive despite being in an homogenising and closed society. The closing scenes, including a ‘last supper’ eaten to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’, are profoundly moving as the camera settles on each face, at first joking and then, as the realisation that they are likely to die resurfaces, weeping. It’s a quiet but shockingly powerful movie that needs to be watched.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely – a good double bill would be with either Bresson’s ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’ or ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (two other stories of martyrdom), or perhaps for a lighter contrast, ‘The Way’.