Sunday, March 27, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Our commitment to a place, a people, or a person is tested when something we cherish (our own well-being, for example) is endangered. At these times choice is not a freedom but a burden. Too often this burden is dispensed with, swiftly and efficiently, because the choice for self-preservation (physical, emotional or financial) can be justified, easily explained as being in others' interest, not just our own. The burden: honestly evaluating the alternatives, succumbing neither to mindless self-sacrifice or rationalized retreat. It's a tough test, most recently felt by some in Tokyo and the Kanto region of Japan. None of us should presume to judge others in this regard.
Few films explore this realm with honesty, and it is difficult for directors, writers and actors to avoid sentimentality and melodrama in telling such a story. That is why "Of Gods and Men" must be seen. In a narrative based on a true story, eight Cistercian monks struggle, individually and as a community, with this choice when their north African monastery is caught between a government they believe corrupt, and a mounting tide of murderous religious fundamentalism. One can easily postulate reasons for leaving this situation, but one must see the film to understand the case for remaining.
Christian religious men, their lives are fully integrated with the Muslim community they serve and that has come to depend on them. At one point, when the burden weighs heavily on them, and they are not ready to accept the possible consequences of remaining (their own kidnapping or death not the least), one of the monks tells the village elder that they, the monks, are nothing more than "birds on a branch." The elder's wife, standing in the doorway listening to this conversation, corrects him: "You are the branch and we are the birds."
Understandable fear, along with sincere reflection on the reality of religious vocation, and concern for the villagers all move the monks emotionally as the violence moves closer. We are given a model of leadership in the character of Christian, and we are allowed to observe the dignity of middle-aged and elderly men grappling with the everyday vicissitudes of aging in the midst of larger turmoil. The film is perfectly paced, allowing us time to process the dilemmas faced by these men. Near the film's conclusion, we are allowed a wonderful sequence of closeups as they share a glass of wine and listen to a tape of Swan Lake. Hope you see this movie, there is a reason it won the Cannes Grand Prix. It's at the Landmark Century in Chicago this week.

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