How do you express the beauty of the soul on screen? Convey the existential agony of people who, by definition, are not used to verbalising their emotions? How do you turn on audiences with the antiquated notion of sacrifice – giving one’s life not for a great political cause but for the sake of humanity, one’s own humanity – expressed in a Christ-like gesture of salvation? How does one make a film about victims of terror without falling into post 9/11-clichéd emotionalism? Last but not least: how does one shoot a film about nine middle-aged-to-old monks, almost entirely set in a monastery – with no sex, no romance, just fraternity and a love of Jesus – and still grab viewers? Director Xavier Beauvois met the challenges, snatching the Cannes Jury Grand Prix on the way.
The plot follows the true story of nine French Cistercian monks who lived in the Tibhirine monastery in the Atlas mountains of Algeria, where they took up farming, made money and treated the sick – in perfect harmony with the surrounding nature and the Muslim villagers. In 1993, the country is plunged into civil war. As fundamentalist terror and army repression come ever closer, the small fraternity is faced with an agonizing choice: stay – and risk death – or go and let down the villagers who count on them, give up on the country they love and, worst of all, abandon their faith-driven mission. Where does true courage lie?
How can one leave without giving up? But how can one stay and not embrace martyrdom?
In the dilemma between foolish perseverance and passive surrender, fear and doubts gnawing away at their wavering faith, they find a third way: moral resistance. Although this is somewhat a chronicle of death foretold, Beauvois manages to keep up the suspense while we follow the agony of the monks as they face impending fate. The film reaches its climax when the monks sit around the table for a last supper. What we experience is not just doom and gloom, but the out-of-this-world ecstasy of their last moments, like the final cigarette of the condemned.
The mixture of joy and fear, bathed in the overwhelming score of Swan Lake playing on a small radio, feels almost too beautiful, too emotionally overpowering to be true. But it is all true – more evidence that reality is often larger than fiction. With this subtle, beautiful and impeccably acted film, Beauvois ensures that the memory of these incredibly brave men lives on… far beyond the hillside where their disembodied heads were found, in their beloved Algeria.
DES HOMMES ET DES DIEUX | Directed by Xavier Beauvois (France 2010) with Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale. Opens December 16. In French and Arabic.