When the abbot asks a group of the local people if they feel they need the protection of the army against the violence of the political radicals, one man says, “Let’s not talk about the army, it’s a catastrophe. The army won’t come. The protection is you.” A monk then compares the monks to birds on a branch, an image that evokes both a sense of them as sitting targets, and the possibility that they may fly at any moment. To this, a woman firmly replies, “We are the birds. You are the branch. Without you, we won’t know where to rest.”
Over dinner a week or two ago, I got into a lively argument with a friend of mine, Nick, about this film. He felt it was irresponsible and unhelpful to make a film like this at a time when there is already so much fear of terrorism, and lack of understanding of the conditions that underlie Islamicism. He thinks that what we need are films that make Islamicism comprehensible, that acknowledge and expose the injustices that have provoked the anger and the desperate measures of Islamicist politics. For him, this film demonized the Islamicists in Algeria, idealized the monks as the representatives of Western culture, and failed to consider the history that led up to their confrontation or to present the perspective of the Islamicists.
It is true that ‘Of Gods and Men’ does not attempt to explain the history of colonization in Algeria. As a French film, it is made for an audience that is assumed to have prior knowledge of this history. It is also a film that does not seek to understand political violence by delving into its causes or exploring the perspective of the violent. In the world of the film the threat of violence is a given, a fact that the protagonists of the film cannot control. Their problem is how to respond to it. The options of flight or compromise are considered, but not taken up. Horrified as they are by the violence, the monks also refrain from condemnation or judgment.
When an armed group storms into the monastery and its leader demands medical treatment for his men, the abbot stands his ground and says that they will receive the same treatment as the villagers – no more. He quotes a passage from the Koran about the love shown by Christians toward the people they live among, and the leader supplies the last phrase (about “waxing not proud”). When the abbot adds that it is Christmas Eve, the leader apologises and shakes his hand before leaving peacefully.
Later, the abbot is called upon by an army general to identify the corpse of this man. Before showing him the body, the general warns that it has been dragged through the town behind an army truck so his victims could rejoice over his death. The abbot asks why he did not prevent this. Astonished, the general asks if he wants to know what the favorite torture technique of this man was in dealing with his innocent victims, and declares that people like him do not merit compassion. By contrast, when the dead man’s head is uncovered and the abbot recognizes the Islamicist leader, it is clear from his gesture and expression that the abbot is filled with compassion for a fellow human being whose life has ended so pitifully – judgment of the crimes this man committed is irrelevant for him in this moment.
These scenes from the film make it hard for me to see it as a work that demonises Islamicists, or encourages anti-terrorist sentiment, even though it portrays the suffering and fear provoked by Islamicist violence. For me, it is a film that presents an inspiring and challenging model of how to respond to such violence. The monks do not participate in the violence, even in the form of condemnatory judgments or by letting it persuade them to abandon a place and a way of life they value. Instead, under great pressure, they sustain their commitment to a way of peace and love, and show a compassionate understanding of those who threaten them that is not based on complex judgments about historical responsibilities, but on a simpler, more profound sense of shared humanity. There is a strong sense that this commitment is both extremely difficult and freely made and renewed each day. Nothing obliges the monks to behave the way they do, not the violent agents of political history, not the authority of the Church or Western culture, not even the demands of morality.
I am conscious in writing the last sentence of echoing Sartre’s rhetoric in Being and Nothingness - except that he would have italicized “Nothing.” To my mind, Of Gods and Men provides a moving example of what it might be to live according to an existentialist ethic of absolute personal freedom and responsibility. But it also challenges Sartre’s version of this ethic by suggesting an intimate connection between such responsibility and a commitment to non-violence that is underpinned by the discipline of religious practice. Sartre was anti-religious and defended the use of violence for political purposes. Maybe he would have agreed with Nick…