As civil war raged in Algeria in the 1990’s, a Trappist monastery in this predominantly Muslim nation refused to be intimidated by the ongoing fundamentalist violence. The haunting story of how eight monks of the Tibhirine Monastery practiced nonviolence will play at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven on Saturday, April 23, and Sunday, April 24.
French director Xavier Beauvois’s film won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year and was just released in the U.S. With unrest roiling in so many Arab nations near Algeria, it has particular poignancy playing here on Easter — if not the direct relevance that has attracted large French audiences. “Of Gods and Men” is based on the true story of what happened to the monks of Tibhirine Monastery in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria.
Established in the 19th century when Algeria was still a French colony, the Tibhirine monastery remained an integral part of the surrounding Muslim community after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. The movie is set in 1996, the year the monks were kidnapped and held for ransom by a terrorist organization known as the Armed Islamic Group.
The director takes time to recreate the almost other-worldly monastic life and interactions with local people. The monks tend the crops that make them self-sufficient, raise bees and sell honey in the marketplace. They do not proselytize but coexist with the Muslim villagers, attending their religious celebrations and providing free medical services to the populace at their clinic.
Michael Lonsdale, one of a uniformly strong cast of actors, plays Brother Luc, who runs the clinic, dispenses new shoes and romantic advice as well as medicine to as many as 150 patients a day. There is no direct attempt to address the anti-colonial fervor that played a part in fundamentalist antipathy towards the French-born monks and made them an easy target. Instead M. Beauvois concentrates on how these pacifists choose to cast their lot with the people they serve despite the enormous stakes. Standing in for the Algerian landscape, the handsome Moroccan mountains are depicted as integral to the monk’s faith-driven worldview.
Terrorism impinges dramatically on monastery life when guerrilla leader Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi) and his men show up, guns in hand, to request medical aid. Prior Christian (Lambert Wilson) refuses to send ailing Brother Luc to the guerrilla’s aid or even to provide medicine. Quoting the Koran about Christian monks, the prior lets Fayattia know it is Christmas Eve, and the guerrilla leader backs down, respectfully but temporarily.
Tension builds scene by scene, and the frightened monks debate the pros and cons of leaving Algeria, as the military and the government pressure them to do. They fault Christian for not consulting them in his dealings with the guerrillas, reflecting the purity of their communal beliefs. With liturgical songs and chants providing the soundtrack’s only music, the monk’s rituals gain in power and beauty as emblems of their faith over the course of the narration. As framed by the movie, their archaic practices seem no match for the violence afoot.
Of particular resonance is the director’s use of close-ups. He trains the camera on each of the monks’ faces as they ponder the consequences of their decision, made one by one, to stay at the monastery. In the end, they may find themselves swept away by violence, but their faith is not.
Saturday, April 23, 4 and 7:30 pm, and Sunday, April 24, 4 and 7 pm, Capawock Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $7. For more information, call 508-627-6689.
Brooks Robards, who divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Northampton, is a frequent contributor to The Times.