The Story of the Monks of Tibéhirine
The Gallic contradictory spirit often makes itself apparent in cinema. Many American films that were hits everywhere else in the world never made it to number one in France, because the top place was already occupied by a film that better catered to the French taste in cinema. In 2008, the film "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," a French comedy, held the number one box office position for weeks. That may seem headstrong, but it is not nearly as surprising as what is currently taking place.
The film "Of Gods and Men" opened in French cinemas on 8 September. The winner of the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes festival is a film about a group of French monks living in Algeria until they are murdered at the hands of Islamic terrorists in 1996. In one particularly moving scene, the monks sit down together for a last meal and listen to a CD of "Swan Lake." All in all, this is not exactly an action film.
"Of Gods and Men" kicked the Angelina Jolie thriller "Salt" off the box office throne and, now in its third week at number one on the French movie charts, has since recorded an attendance level of 1.4 million viewers. By comparison, even "Inception" did not remain at number one for a longer time. The attitude towards cinema in France is simply different. Films are not regarded as mere entertainment, but are seen as comparable to going out to the theatre.
One thing is already clear – "Of Gods and Men" will be France's contender for the Oscar nomination. Whether the Academy in Hollywood can appreciate the quiet beauty of Xavier Beauvois' monastery film remains, of course, the question.
The story of the monks of Tibéhirine is based in reality. They lived in unity with the Muslim villagers from around the monastery. They did not proselytize, yet did care for their flock of a different faith.
One of these was the village doctor, played by Michael Lonsdale in the film, who distributed clothes donations from the monks. Beauvois permits the viewer to spend time with the monks and their humble lifestyle, and only gradually allows the threat from outside to seep into the modest refuge of tranquillity. The Islamists are gaining strength in Algeria and terrorise the villagers and the monks.
Without any trace of prejudice
They refuse to return to France. In the end, they are kidnapped and murdered. Rumours circulate to this day that the Algerian government was somehow involved in events. How has this turned into a box office hit? Beauvois certainly doesn't approach his subject from the Eurocentric chauvinist viewpoint that has recently become fashionable in some quarters. Instead, "Of Gods and Men" is firmly based in early Christian values, without any trace of prejudice.
"Of Gods and Men" has a religious theme, but it is not a religious film. It does not preach. Beauvois' work finds itself in the tradition of Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Jeanne d'Arc." Yet, this alone cannot account for the film's success. It is more the case that the film confronts the public with a wide range of fears and concerns. "Of Gods and Men" offers a hotchpotch of doubts – ranging from concerns over the consumer society, missionary work, and imperialism, to Islamism.
The film does deal with the clash between Christianity and Islam, but the monks have a different approach than what one sees in politics. They do not export their values, but merely offer them. They confront the Islamists and the Algerian army, remaining upright and refusing to weaken.
They regard their monastery as their home and the care they provide to the village as their purpose in life. For all intents and purposes, the monks are classic film heroes, who refuse to submit to the laws of reality, even if it means paying with their very lives. And this, of course, is a recipe for success in the movies, where one is permitted to mourn the fact that the world is as it is.
© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de