December 30, 2010

Of Gods and Men or Being the Branch for Birds

Brother Célestin: "We are like birds on a branch. We don't know whether to fly away or stay"
Woman of the village: "We are the birds, you are the branch"

Yes, this is what you call a "slow-paced movie", yes, it is about monks, yes, subtitles so not a screamer for the  average popcorn chomp crowd. But give it a chance: we are being drowned in sameness and this film takes you to a different place. And does make you think about things, about life.  So all you atheists, agnostics - give it a go.

A French film, directed by Xavier Beauvois, it won the Grand Prix in Cannes May 2010.  It recounts the true story of eight French Trappist monks who reside in their monastery atop a hill, overlooking a small very poor village in the Atlas mountains in Algeria, in Northern Africa. 

The tale is set against a background of a country in turmoil. An Islamic country torn asunder by radical forces, in the midst of a civil war. Lasting from 1991 to 2002, over 70 journalists and more than 150,000 people were killed, many of them civilians in ever increasing horrific attacks from rebel forces and also by the military.  This particular story is set in 1997.

The monks go about their daily business, selling honey at the market, growing their vegetables, offering basic health care for the villagers, praying, chanting...normal monk activities. Disturbing news filters through. When a group of armed rebels enter the monastery one night, the monks are directly confronted by "my end is my beginning," prophetic words uttered by one of the monks as events unfold. Government officials warn the monks, although they appear to have more contempt than sympathy, viewing them as representatives of the former colonial oppressors. The monks must decide whether to leave or stay.  That's the essence of the story.

There begins the struggle with one's own weaknesses - trying to find the courage within oneself to make a difference. Finding that strength to make a difference to be great within the world they live in.  It's a greatness not measurable in huge merit or recognition. It's finding small greatness within themselves.

Of course religion plays a role in the movie, you know, because they're monks but belief in a higher being is not a prerequisite for loving this movie. Call it allegorical or metaphorical: the struggle for inner honor, integrity of one's self is something we all can relate to. These guys were afraid, fearful for their lives. They didn't want to end up dead. There wasn't a unanimous consensus to stick it out and die trying. There was genuine fear. They individually wrestled with their faith, their conscience, their beliefs, their angst, some digging deeper than others to muster up the courage to stay.

The religious trappings retreat into the background in their profoundly human struggles. Christian, Amédée, Célestin, Luc, Christophe, Michel  try to figure out: what is the right thing to do? Can I find strength inside me? Will I be loyal to survival or loyal to conviction? Where is my family?

"If you can hear the birds, you don't need anything else" says Brother Luc. And you know, it's kind of true. 

The original title: Des Hommes et Des Dieux (direct translation: of Men and Gods)
(The German title: Menschen und Götter (Of Mankind and Gods.) The subtleties of language are fascinating.)
With Michael Lonsdale, Lambert Wilson, Philippe Laudenbach,  Jacques Herlin (all completely wonderful)

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