August 26, 2011

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Documentary highlights unwavering faith and its consequences

Cynthia DewesFaith is a hard thing to describe. It’s an abstraction—even for the person who experiences it—and a doubtful mystery to someone who doesn’t.

But recently I happened upon a movie which illustrated the concept and substance of faith in the best way that I’ve ever seen. It was extremely moving.

The movie is Of Gods and Men, a French film which won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is a documentary which appears to be fictional because it tells its story in such human, dramatic ways. It is based on a true incident during the French-Algerian conflict when Algeria was becoming a nation separate from French colonial dominance.

The story tells of eight French monks who live in a monastery in the Algerian mountains. Everyone in the area is Muslim, and they are the people the monks serve. One of the monks is a doctor who holds a daily clinic for the (mostly) women and children of local villages. The monks also share their crops and other goods with the villagers, and a peaceful, respectful relationship exists between them.

When conflict arises between the French rebels and the French-dominated Algerian army, the monks know they are in danger in their isolated monastery. No matter how neutral they are, one side or the other is bound to accuse them of helping the other faction. After all, they are Frenchmen living among a native population.

The monks react to this in different ways. One young monk thinks he should leave and go back to France where he can serve God better without the threat of death. Some of the older monks say they are too old to leave, and will take what comes, and still others are undecided.

The monks’ interior struggle is well demonstrated in the film by the discussions and concerns that go on within their community. The men are shown sharing Communion, praying and eating together, and going about their daily chores.

Eventually, all eight monks decide to stay because their mission is there, and they are committed to serving God in that place.

One day, a rebel force invades the monastery, running around and rifling the place, waving guns and barking orders. They accuse the French priests of subverting the revolution. When the rebel leader notices that they seem to be celebrating something, the abbot tells him that this night is the birthday of Jesus, a special event which Christians celebrate every year.

The Muslim leader is familiar with Jesus, whom he respects as a prophet, and he apologizes for the intrusion. He and the abbot shake hands and the rebels leave.

Still later, the Algerian army descends on the monastery and proceeds to ransack the place looking for rebels, whom they believe the monks are hiding. Finding no evidence, they leave. The monks know their peaceful days are over.

One evening after dinner, the doctor puts on a recording of the music from “Swan Lake” and pours each monk a glass of wine. As they sit silently together, listening to the beautiful music, their eyes tear up and their faces express the sadness they know will come. It is their Last Supper before their Calvary begins.

Eventually, the rebels return and take seven of the monks hostage, leaving one monk, who hid under his bed to tell the tale later.

Finally, the seven monks are killed, martyrs to their faith and to that part of the human person which mirrors the divine.

The movie is a documentary all right—a documentary of what faith looks like, feels like and is.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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