09 May 2011

Monks in the Movies.

Last night, I got to see Of Gods and Men, the French/Algerian production that's been winning all the awards, and which the French bishops (Catholic, bien sûr) have been urging their flocks to see. It was... erm...

Well, the story is that, at the Tibhirine Monastery in the mountains of Algeria, there are a double handful of monks, most of them older, but still very active in the community. They run the best hospital around, and the villagers help them out. Then the Algerian civil war kicks in, some terrorists start terrorizing both the locals and the monks, and the monks are urged to flee by both the Algerian military -- whose protection they refuse -- and the local mayor (I think). Instead, the monks stay, continuing to help the local people, and even treating some of the terrorists without question. When the head terrorist is killed, the abbot, Brother Christian (no, really) is called in to identify him. Eventually, all but two of the monks, who managed to hide, are abducted, held briefly for ransom from the French government and then beheaded.

As I say, the film's gotten lots of awards, and maybe it's better in the cinema. It's amazing that it's based on a true story (but then, aren't they all, these days?) but the technical problems of the film are myriad. In fact, it's a bit distressing that a film so poorly structured could win so many awards. Every shot went on for minutes at a time, it seemed. It didn't help that the film was shot like a horror movie and when there was a soundtrack, it was usually one or two guys chanting. This horror-movie-ish aspect leads the viewer to expect some kind of jump scene, some relief to the tension -- but tension, if it's poorly sustained over too long a period of time, just turns into boredom. The plot itself was so very slow moving, it was difficult, in places, to remember what had happened -- when, in fact, very little had in the first place.

The characters, also, were underdeveloped, and seriously, it took about an hour and forty-five minutes -- of a two-hour film -- to remember anyone but the abbot's name. Some of the characters themselves were interesting, but their role as characters was underplayed. Brother Luc, for example, the monastery's doctor -- an excellent character. According to the documentary included on the disc, he had joined that monastery some fifty years before the events of the film, and he had no intention of ever leaving. He was also, when he was allowed to open his mouth at all, very wry and full of good advice. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is one in which Brother Luc is giving advice to a young girl from the village who has sought his council. She's being married to a man she isn't especially interested in, but she approaches this in a very roundabout way, first asking the monk if he'd ever been in love. His responses are sweet and appropriate to a monk without being overbearing. Unfortunately, neither the subplot with the young girl -- who disappears midway through the film, never to return -- nor Brother Luc as a character are properly developed. He's memorable because he's interesting, but we never see his full potential.

Okay, so the plot was overextended and the characterization rough at best -- sounds par for the course. But more troubling, to me, was the ill-defined nature of the film's main idea. What precisely was Of Gods and Men trying to say? I still don't know. We learned a little about how the monks live their lives, but that wasn't point. There was some stuff about the Algerian civil war ('90s model), but that wasn't the point either.

The nail was, I think, stricken upon its head by my dear sister, who pointed out that everything the film said was exactly what everyone -- especially if "everyone" is French -- wants to hear. The Western -- or at least, non-Muslim -- way of life has value and beauty, but so does Islam and its followers. You can get along with terrorists (at least until they change leadership) by being nice and helping them when they're sick. The military is always bad. French girls shouldn't protest not being allowed to wear the veil in school if they want to -- girls in Algeria are (or were) getting killed for not wearing it in public. Essentially, it affirmed a lot of ideas that are not especially interesting, nor especially helpful, when dealing with religion. (Except the one about Islam and Christianity being of equal value and potential for good -- that stands, in my book.)

But if you're dead set on seeing a film about monks, just watch The Island, the Russian/French production that made the rounds a couple of years ago. It wasn't quite as recognized as Of Gods and Men, probably because the French episcopacy wasn't providing publicity for it, but it was much more thoughtful, its message was clearer -- and it was even funny.

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