Set in the backdrop of the Algerian Civil War of the 90s, ‘Of Gods and Men’ is an extraordinary story based on true events that has gained great critical acclaim, including the Grand Prix Award at the Cannes Film Festival and nomination as the French official submission for the Academy Awards. The story revolves around eight French monks living in a monastery in the Algerian countryside who end up having to make difficult choices when confronted with extremists.
The movie starts with the peaceful routine of the monks; daily prayers, mundane household chores at the self-sustaining monastery, amiable interactions with Muslim neighbours, and community work including free medical help for the sick. The slow pace of their lives is emphasised by the serenity of the highland rural setting captured in its unspoiled beauty. This serenity is disturbed by the frequent news of killing and arson taking place in various parts of the country, but it isn’t till some foreigner workers in a nearby area are slaughtered that the monks and villagers start feeling the heat. As clashes between the security forces and the militants grow, the monks become a hot target for the latter. It is then that the monks must either choose to stay and face the risk of death or to escape and save their lives. Invoking the power of faith and their communitarian bond, the monks decide to stay amid growing tensions and unpredictable developments, eventually meeting their fateful end at the hands of the extremists.
Through compelling acting, attuned dialogue and a slow-paced screenplay, the subject of this moving drama is dealt with meticulously. The monks’ test of faith, which is central to the plot, is presented not only as a religious problem but also as an existential predicament. When the threat draws near and the monks hold their meetings to decide their future course of action, it seems like arguments from the Bible and the whole set of Catholic rituals stand muted before the loud question of their moral conviction. Facing possible death, their votes fluctuate between staying and leaving the monastery. Their eventual decision to stay emanates from their conviction to stand against violence and brutality as well as their belief in the power of love. The universal character of their motives, which lies beyond the boundaries of any particular religion, is what makes them real heroes.
Through their collective stand, the monks also set an impressive example of facing perennial fears. Assuming that fear is a state of mind and lies inside of us, the solution is not to escape but face it. As a testament to this end, they even refuse military protection, which is of course also influenced by their disdain for the corrupt state authorities. “To leave is to die”, pronounced by Luc, one of the monks who is also the doctor, captures the essence of this issue at play.
The current context of ongoing violent conflicts in the name of religion necessitates a keener look at this movie. It is awful to watch how peace between the coexisting Muslim majority and the monks is ripped away by forces which carry no meaning and no consideration for the common dweller of the area. The words of Blaise Pascal quoted in the movie “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction” resonate alarmingly before those of us who live with the reality of terrorism everyday in Pakistan. Given the historical and contemporary interconnectedness of various religious communities, razing monasteries and persecuting minorities represent nothing short of a civilizational downfall.
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