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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Of Gods and Men


Director Xavier Beauvois (2010)

Funny old game, religion. The publicity surrounding Of Gods and Men will tell you itís about a bunch of French monks under threat from Islamic terrorists, religious extremists. Yet the monks are religious extremists, too, in their own way.

Their monastery, in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, is some kind of benevolent residue of French colonialism. A muslim village has grown up around its walls, around the charity of the monks, who dispense medicines, shoes and advice about love.

Despite the religious clash (although Christianity has more in common with Islam than we are usually led to believe) the monastery and the village are an organic entity.They depend on each other.

All is happy, harmonious. But this is the 1990s and Algeria is in the grip of a civil war between a corrupt government and the mujahideen. When the muslim fighters arrive in their cars and vans they seem not only to come from the cities beyond this mountainous idyll but from another time, the future the monks resist.

Equally, the threat comes from the state which, suspecting the monks have been giving medical aid to the guerillas, menaces them from the sky as they chant defiantly against the throbbing blades of a helicopter.

Led by Christian (Lambert Wilson) the brothers must decide whether to stay and carry out their calling, or flee for their lives.

It is a test of faith that forces them to question why they are there. At one time they must have been an ideological arm of French imperialism, as the governmentís man at one point makes clear.

The official reason is, of course, god. But where is he when you need him? You love him but he doesnít phone, he doesnít write. Not even a text. But between them the monks overcome their doubts and their faith, faith being what it is, grows even stronger in adversity.

The best reason for being there, though, are the people for whom they form a miniature welfare state. Certainly the real state isnít bothered. Providing practical help in the absence of public services is often the means through which militant Islam builds a base in local communities. (Makes you wonder what might happen if David Cameron has his way with the Big Society over hereÖ)

One monk represent thos reason more than the others. Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is the doctor and set a little apart from the rest. He wears civvies, mostly, and swears and he never joins the other monks for their hymn singing.

Yet while Lucís practical purpose is clear and deliberate itís the singing and chanting, the ritual and routine, that define the lives of the others.

Faith is made flesh, and with it Ė one of the funny things about religion Ė god is rendered unnecessary. The beliefs than bind the brothers together is inscribed in daily life. The meaning of the hymns lie not in the words but the fact they are sung.

Of Gods and Men has a great sense of this fleshiness of faith. There are a lot of words spoken and sung, as youíd expect from a scriptural religion. But in the most eloquent scene there are no words at all.

For a treat the monks drink wine from tumblers and listen to Swan Lake on a cassette player. As the music swells and falls they glance and laugh at each other then grow sombre. Tears glisten in their eyes.

They have just made their decision to stay. Fear and contentment and a strange kind of joy are rolled into one.

Is this the religious experience? If it is then itís the religion of men, not of gods.

December 24, 2010

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