It’s been quite a while since my last post. I was dedicating all my energies to drafting the final chapter of my dissertation, but then got taken down by a sinus infection. After that I traveled to New York to discuss an exciting new project and spend time with old friends. The trip was lovely, but truth be told, I’m feeling somewhat depressed about the state of the world right now. There’s a lot on my mind: all my piled up work, the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, the crackdowns in Libya and Bahrain, not to mention the power grab in Wisconsin. In times like this I, like many, turn to art—not to be entertained, or to forget (though who could blame us), but because through art we can begin to make some meaning out of the stress and sorrow.
While in NYC I had a chance to see a film that rises to the level of art. Of Gods and Men is a French/Algerian movie based on the real-life events surrounding a French monastery in a small Algerian town during a time of unrest in the mid 1990s. There are many things to love about this story: Christians who aren’t worried with converting souls, but rather of alleviating suffering in this life; a small Muslim town who embraces the monastery as their own (though not its god); and rebels who are more than a one-dimensional homogeneous mass of marauders. Then there are the cinematic features: the way the actors portray their crisis of faith; the pacing of the film which gives you a feel for the quiet monastic life while also building tension and suspense. And finally, there is this one amazing scene—a kind of recreation of the Last Supper—from which you feel nearly everything there is to feel about being human.
Notably, the suite from Swan Lake plays in the background as the monks come to terms with the decisions they’ve made. It’s the same section of music as that playing in the background of Black Swan’s finale, however the two scenes could not be more divergent. In Black Swan the sacrifice is one made for the sake of fame and external recognition, in Of Gods and Men the sacrifices the monks are willing to make are an expression of their vows to live a life of compassion and service. Their plight cuts to the quick of what it means to be human—what makes life worth living and dying for? For these monks, who ironically spend many hours alone in silent meditation, it is the fellowship of others—what they call love—that motivates them to live and to die.
I often agree with Roger Ebert’s take on movies, but he missed the boat on this one. He argues here that the monks were foolish. However, the lead monk explains that the monastery’s reason for being (as decided by the monks themselves) was not to patronize the poor—it was to live among them, to be one of them, not to cut and run using resources others around them did not have. The monks were willing to live and die, to forgive even their tormentors, in the name of a principle beyond religion, sex, or fear. They were willing to be both embraced and destroyed in the name of love, making them not martyrs but existential heroes.