In my role as the AFOE occasional film critic, off to the Curzon Mayfair for Of Gods and Men/Des dieux et des hommes. After the DICKHEADS, we’re going to deal with some much more serious terrorism in this post.
Of Gods and Men is a classic peace movie, in the sense that there are classic war movies. In fact, it mirrors quite a lot of the structure and tropes you expect from a war movie – a neat trick. The film deals with the hostage-taking and eventual murder, by unidentified gunmen, of a group of French monks in the high Atlas mountains of Algeria in 1996, during the grim worst of the Algerian civil war. The monks, to begin with, are living at peace – in fact, as we learn from some of their conversations, their elected leader Brother Christian sees their mission (that word, already) as a project in deliberately waging peace, a continuation of the alternative-leftist dream of 1968. Every time the monks have a meeting, Christian takes his seat directly in front of an icon of 1980s internationalists, the world map redrawn to make the size of Africa and Latin America more obvious.
The monks tend their land, produce honey and wine, worship. Christian is writing a book. They practice social service – one of them, Luc, is a doctor, who holds a weekly surgery for the poor. They live in apparent harmony with the Algerian villagers across the valley in their structural-tile favela settlement.
Nobody wants to be involved with the war, but the war wants very much to be involved with them. A group of Croatian engineers working nearby are murdered by insurgents. Gradually, the violence infects everything else. They try to refuse it – Christian meets with the Algerian governor, who offers to post troops near the monastery, and he refuses as a matter of principle. As a result, the monks fall out among themselves, not so much about the troops but because he has acted without getting their approval first. The war draws progressively closer, and they debate endlessly whether to abandon the whole project and go back to France, to move temporarily to a place of safety, to go back on the governor’s offer, or to stick it out. One night, the insurgents appear and demand medical assistance. Christian persuades their leader to stay outside the monastery, and they accept drugs and dressings.
Things rapidly become more serious. It becomes obvious that one side, or another, wants them dead. The insurgent leader is killed in action with the army and Christian has to identify his body, thus becoming suspect to both the insurgents and the army. A succession of monks struggle with their fear and doubt, but Christian talks them around one by one. Eventually, gunmen kidnap all but two monks (who succeed in hiding) and march them off into the mountains. They ended up dead in reality; who killed them, and how, remains a mystery.
I liked the way this film showed people at work – the monks, the Algerians, like the village haji who they hire to bring his Polish tractor and plough their patch. We see him hit a sticky patch, carefully raise the hitch, reverse, and try again. The doomed Croats boom around the site with their Caterpillars and a sort of proud working-class confidence.
I also liked the role of time. The monks initially seem to be blessed with the gift of all the time in the world, but as the film progresses, the slow progress of time becomes a source of cranking suspense and maddening waiting.
That’s another war-movie trick, of course. Among other things, Brother Bruno makes a dangerous journey through the checkpoints and the debatable lands to bring in an urgent supply run, including cheese, medicines, and several hundred rounds of communion wafers. People write home illuminatingly. One of the monks demands of their leader “What are we doing here – trying to be heroes? Martyrs?”, and his leader talks him down reminding him of the importance of their mission and his obligations to his brothers (another telling word). The characters seek out their leader one by one to talk to him in confidence, and he pays out the big cheap words used on all such occasions. After they are captured, one after the other, the hostage-takers make them read out their name, age, and monastic affiliation. (Monks don’t have serial numbers.) In fact, it’s arguable that this is how the war seeps into the monastery – the monks get pressganged into a war movie.
As well as being a great war movie about peace, it’s a pretty good peace movie about war. The Algerian regional governor honestly doesn’t want the monks to get killed, but he also has political motives – it would be welcome if they were to simply leave, but he would prefer they stay, so he can install a detachment of troops in the village and establish the government’s authority there on the pretext of protecting them. He would like to make the monks part of his counter-insurgency plan. And if the insurgents were to butcher them, despite all he could do, that would make useful propaganda.
The insurgents would much rather have the monks in place – it’s always possible to slaughter them if a dose of revolutionary terror is required, and they are a source of medical assistance. Although the insurgent leader doesn’t give Brother Christian any assurances, he does let others believe that the monks are under his protection.
And the people, it turns out, are hoping that the presence of the monks will deter the insurgents from doing anything to them, for fear of committing an atrocity awful enough to wreck their reputation. They don’t want the insurgents and they want the government still less – they want, most of all, to survive and to avoid being governed. It is telling that the villagers and the monks are the only people in the movie who practice a sort of democracy – the Algerian military, of course, couldn’t care less, and the insurgents obey their leader. But this doesn’t mean they are passive. Part of the horror is that the relationship between the villagers and the monks subtly changes, from peace to something approaching a hostage situation. After all, the villagers are in a position to denounce them to the insurgents (or the army) and then carefully see nothing.
Obviously, this situation is intolerable to both the insurgents and the military. Neither the insurgent nor the counterinsurgent will put up with people who insist on escaping from their joint demand that they take sides. In a sense, the monks are wiped out by an unconscious conspiracy between two factions desperately competing to deliver their rival visions of government to people who want no part of either. Monks don’t have serial numbers, and all the killers of the Algerian war want to impose them.
Oddly enough, the Algerian governor, with his Ottoman title of Wali, is quite a sympathetic character. A curious feature of his role is that every time he appears on screen, he speaks the unvarnished truth as a sort of bureaucratic Greek chorus. Also, he always appears in a black suit, a uniform that marks him as a survival of civilian power. In his office, though, when he talks about the people and gestures out of the window, you can’t see any people.