Faith and devotion: Of Gods and Men

An entry on Trappists in Wikipedia:

“Strict Observance” refers to the Trappists’ goal to follow closely St. Benedict’s Rule, and take the three vows described in his Rule (c. 58): stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. As Benedict also insisted on silence, it has some importance in their way of life. However, contrary to popular belief, they do not take a vow of silence.[4] Trappist monks will generally only speak when necessary, and idle talk is strongly discouraged. As described by St. Benedict, speech disturbs a disciple’s duty for quietude and receptivity, and may tempt one to exercise one’s own will instead of the will of God. Speech which leads to unkind amusement or laughter is seen as evil and is banned.[5] In years past, a Trappist Sign Language, distinct from other forms of monastic sign language, was developed to dissuade speaking. Meals are usually taken in contemplative silence, as members of the order are supposed to listen to a reading.

Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, takes its cues from these beliefs. Hushed, replete with widescreen shots of monks tending gardens, interacting kindly with Algerian villagers, or singing hymns during Mass, it recognizes faith as the ultimate in what Wallace Stevens would call an idea of order. A crude description of this film would reduce it to a clash of civilizations worthy of Samuel Huntington: Islamist fundamentalism makes martyrs of a half dozen monks in mid nineties Algeria who will not heed the counsel of government functionaries, themselves impatient with the monks’ rigor. But self-righteousness, fascinatingly, is absent, or perhaps the monks’ devotion to duty is itself an example of self-righteousness.

But fissures course through their devotion. The head of the order Father Christian (Lambert Wilson, with a passing resemblance to ascetic, lantern-jawed Woodrow Wilson) allows brothers to vote their conscience. Beauvois fills the screen with close-ups of old bald men stone-faced with confusion; like men on a sinking ship, no one wants to be the first to claim they deserve a spot on the lifeboat. The most responsible — the ones with the deepest tie to the Muslim villagers — elect to stay, among them Lucien (Michael Lonsdale’s,  vast as a cathedral), an asthmatic doctor inarticulate about everything except healing. His empathy requires provocation: he replaces the shoes a woman has outgrown without putting her through embarrassing paces.

Of Gods and Men‘s politics are liberal in the ways that count as well as the ways that don’t. Fr. Christian can defuse the Islamist threat by quoting a relevant bit from the Koran (that the fundamentalists implicitly acknowledge the good the Trappists have done for the village helps too), but only for a while. I wish the film had more tension than the obvious one of waiting for the fundamentalists to make their final move against the monastery. As I implied above, the movie so wants to avoid the clash-of-civilizations theme that it gets too ecumenical. It’s an honest conundrum. Does the Jean Renoir line of thinking — that everyone has their reasons — work with material this charged? I’m left appreciating Beauvois’ affection for ritual, like Lucien treating his brothers to an excellent wine during what amounts to a last supper.

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