Thursday, December 30, 2010

Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men": The Basic Humanity of Spiritual Life

Steve and I saw Xavier Beauvois' brilliant prize-winning film "Of Gods and Men" yesterday, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  The film follows the final days of a group of French Cistercian monks in Tibhirine, Algeria, who were murdered in 1996.  The abductors and murderers of these Cistercians have never been identified.  As the movie suggests, the monks were in some respects merely pawns in a dangerous, ideologically murky political game being played by local insurgents and a corrupt national army, and either or both may have been involved in their murders.

At another level, however, the film is a powerfully moving meditation on the lives of the monks themselves, and on how their lives and their vocational commitment to the poor Algerian villagers among whom they lived formed the backdrop to their decision to stay in their monastery even as the political turmoil and violence in Algeria grew, and it became evident that they could very likely be martyred.  Told against this backdrop, the tale of a martyrdom that one knows from the outset is inevitable becomes almost unbearable to watch, as it quietly unfolds scene by scene, while the monks gather firewood, till their fields, cook, pray, and tend to the sick.

Of particular interest to anyone who follows theological discussions and their influence on political thinking is the struggle of the monks to deal with the question of whether they should abandon their monastery or remain in it through the period of political upheaval.  When the abbot decides unilaterally that the monks will stay, his brother monks point out to him that they did not elect him to be a dictator, but to listen to each of them and to make decisions on their behalf informed by their individual counsel.

And so a period of individual and communal soul-searching ensues, in which the abbot meets with each member of the community, to hear his story and help him discern God's call in the crisis through which the monks are living.  These scenes of abbatial solicitude are extremely touching.  They're scenes in which the unique humanity of each individual monk becomes evident to the viewer, as the particular monk reflects on what called him to Cistercian life, and what that call now portends for the decision about staying or relocating the monastery.

The climax of this process, and of the film itself, is a final meal, a last supper, in which the monks share bottles of wine while listening to "Swan Lake."  Throughout the collation, the camera pans slowly from face to face--to each face we've seen in the face-to-face interviews with the abbot, in which it has become clear that the unanimous consensus of the monks is to remain in the monastery.  This last supper scene is one of the most magnificent and moving spiritual statements I've seen in any film in a very long time.  It illustrates in an incomparable way the human basis of all spiritual life--the core Christian affirmation that being spiritual is first and foremost a matter of being human, in as irreducible and unique a way as possible, in the case of each and every human life.  Living one's unique God-given humanity to the fullest as a way of living the life of the God who chooses to become flesh and live among us . . . .

As the film's director Xavier Beauvois has noted in a New York Film Festival interview, ". . . before you have belief, before you have faith, you have freedom, you have equality, you have brotherhood."  So the Cistercians in the film are, he stresses, "basically humans."  They are free men who see themselves as being equal to each other (precisely what their interaction with their abbot described above illustrates), and brothers to each other and the Islamic people among whom they live.

This is a disquieting message for anyone who prefers her or his politics neat and ideologically tied up, in a way that dispenses us from the difficult task of asking what it means, precisely, to be brothers and sisters to everyone in the world in which we each find ourselves.  And so it is perhaps no accident that the London Telegraph, which has been publishing one article after another during the Christmas season lamenting the loss of religion and religious influence in British life, damns Beauvois' film with faint praise in its recent review.

Certain kinds of religion are inconvenient for neo-conservative thinkers, for Tories who prefer to see their religion upholding the status quo and reinforcing the rule of the rich over the poor--not stressing the equality of all men and women in the eyes of God.  And of Muslims with Christians--a key message of the film, which depicts the monks studying the Koran and attending Islamic religious services.  One of the turning points of the film, in fact, is the initial encounter of the monks with the Islamic insurgents of the area, who appear to be threatening violence to the monks, but who walk away from the monastery when the abbot quotes the Koran to them and notes that the monks live as brothers to the Islamic people of their village.

This is a perspective deeply rooted in important strands of French  Catholic spirituality and theological thought, and any reviewer who fails to understand this theological foundation will simply miss the point of the film.  Everywhere in the script there are echoes of Charles de Foucauld and his spirituality which challenges followers of Jesus to live among the poor not as messianic saviors or preachers of a truth owned unilaterally by Christians, but as brothers and sisters, sharing the fate of the poor.  It is that impulse, that calling, which accounts for the well-nigh incomprehensible decision of the monks to remain among the people with whom they are called to live as brothers and face probable martyrdom.

There are strong echoes, as well, of the theology of the worker-priest movement and of Simone Weil, both of which also stressed the primary obligation of believers in Christ to share the lot of the wretched of the earth, and to live among social outcasts, in solidarity with them, rather than preaching to them or seeking to use them to score political points.

More than anything else, it is the film's depiction of the life of brotherly love lived by these Cistercians in an out-of-the-way Islamic village in Algeria that moved me repeatedly to tears.  The simple human gestures--an abbot listening to his brothers and seeking their counsel (imagine this!); monks chanting a hymn with arms around each other as an army helicopter hovers menacingly over their church; monks greeting each other with a kiss of peace, touching each other with human sympathy and compassion as they listen to each others' stories: these simple human gestures stirred my heart in a very deep way.

And made me realize how starved I am--how I hunger and thirst for such simple humanity--in the church in which I have come to find myself as the 21st century begins to unfold.  Such basic humanity--listening abbots and bishops, brothers and sisters who stand together and lock arms to resist evil, or who reach out to touch one another to alleviate pain and show connection--is at a premium in the Catholic church today.  At least, in any version of church I've encountered in recent years.

And "Of Gods and Men" reminds us that it ought not to be that way.  That it need not be that way.  That we lose all vital connection with the Lord in whose footsteps we claim to be walking when we forfeit this basic humanity in the name of ideological purity and theological orthodoxy.

This powerful film richly deserved the Grand Prize it won at Cannes earlier this year.

(A note of sincere gratitude to the marvelous astute film buff Jayden Cameron for pointing us to this film.)

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