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Des hommes et des dieux

March 27, 2011
Des hommes et des dieux

In 1996, in Algeria, seven Trappist monks were abducted from the monastery of Tibhirine by al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha — the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria — a faction of Islamic extremist rebels. They were later found beheaded. It has never been clear whether they were slaughtered by the GIA itself, or accidentally by the Algerian army during a botched rescue attempt. Des hommes et des dieux is not a film about how these men died; it is instead about how they lived.

Eight monks lived in Tibhirine: Brothers Paul (Jean-Marie Frin), Michel (Xavier Maly), Jean-Pierre (Loïc Pichon), Amédée (Jacques Herlin), Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), Luc (Michael Lonsdale), and their elected abbot, Christian (Lambert Wilson). As Trappists, they placed a high value on labor — gardening, landscaping, producing honey for sale, and so on. They were not cloistered away, but rather integrated themselves with the surrounding village community. Luc ran a free medical clinic; other monks helped with some construction tasks; Christian was close with the village leaders, and the abbey even joined in local religious celebrations. They ministered only to the extent that their works flowed from their faith and their call to service.

But this ecumenical spirit was not universal in Algeria. Extremist rebels waged terrorist campaigns against foreigners, and the government itself was not exactly above reproach — a reality in northern Africa of which we are all too aware these days. And despite this unsettling reality, these men felt called to remain and continue their work.

Of course, such a decision is far from simple. Etienne Comar’s inspired script shows us the monks debate their positions around the communal table, explaining not just whether to stay or go, but why each of them feels the way they do. We get a wide variety of insights into how these men received their monastic calling, and how they come to terms with it in practice, even in the most extreme situations. How do they react to the very real possibility of violence, and why do they ultimately decide that Tibhirine is their home, where they must remain?

For his part, director Xavier Beauvois presents a very understated approach. He uses actual violence very sparingly — and thus to great effect when through — and he frames what monologues there are as naturally as possible. The monks speak to each other, but also directly to us. But true to the Trappist spirit, Beauvois knows that too much speech becomes only another noisy distraction; the movie is at it’s best when the dialogue pauses and we simply watch a busy marketplace, or the monks at prayer, or a community celebration, or someone deep in thought, or the majesty of the Atlas mountains in the background.

The actors are all convincingly attuned to the mindset of the monastic lifestyle, and their extensive preparation — including living at the Tamié abbey for a week each — pays off. Wilson’s time reading Brother Christian’s contemplative writings shines through as we see him wrestle with not only his own conscience, but with the rest of the monks’ anguish as well.

The film concludes with the words of Christian de Chergé’s final testament. Composed while contemplating his own likely-immanent demise, he still pleads for interfaith understanding, crying out to the last “AMEN! INCH’ALLAH!”

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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