False Dichotomies


Know Limit


On the first day of my gap-year in Israel, my group’s coordinator gathered us together to dispense essential advice. One aspect of that schpiel has remained with me ever since. She reminded us that we were in a foreign country where we didn’t know the language, the culture, or the little, almost invisible codes of behaviour which constituted true knowledge of a place. We were always to exercise caution, because we didn’t have the tools we needed to know our limits.

The extraordinary Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, shows nine Cistercian Trappist monks tragically exploring their limits in the Algerian countryside. The year is 1996, at the height of the Algerian Civil War, and their monastery, which has been a fixture of the village of Tibhrinie since the nineteenth century, is under threat from roving Islamists. The monks are popular in the village: they run a free outpatient clinic, give romantic tips, help villagers apply for passports, and sell honey at the village market. As one local puts it, “This village has grown up alongside the monastery. Why leave now?” 

They are considering leaving due to the threat of Islamist violence. A group of Croatian construction workers in the area have already had their throats slit. The army offers protection, but this is summarily rejected by the leader of the order, Brother Christian. Then the Jihadis pay the monastery a night-time visit, shouting “Where is the Pope?” (apparently sincerely) as they burst through the gates. In any uneasy stand-off, in which the Jihadi leader and Brother Christian exchange Koranic verses, it becomes clear that only the existence of the clinic stands between the monks and a grisly end.

The film is punctuated by two convocations in which the monks debate whether to stay or go. In the first exchange they are divided. Some are frightened, some are defiant; all are unsure. They are unsure because they do not yet know what God wants of them – their desperate prayers for guidance have not yet been answered. For this reason above all they decide to stay and wait, in the hope that the still, small voice will offer some direction.

Life goes on. They come under more pressure from the army. A wounded Jihadi is brought to the clinic for treatment. The villagers reassure the monks of how important they are to them. Brother Christian walks through the countryside – lakes glimmer, birds flock, sunlight falls. In an astonishing scene, an army helicopter hovers over the village while the monks are praying inside the chapel, their chants doing battle with the rotor’s whirls. When they convene for the second time, there is consensus. They all want to stay.

This seems counter-intuitive. There is now no doubt that their lives are under threat. We also know that the monks see no clash of civilisations, that they are not seeking martyrdom (Brother Christian’s final statement will include: “I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul.”) They are proud to serve the villagers, who are no less threatened by the violence than they are. But what makes them so resolute?

Without wishing to make light of the impossible dilemma the monks faced, I want to suggest that their decision to stay, thereby condemning themselves to death, emerged from an unwillingness to know their limits, from the invincible feeling that arises when one feels he has made it in a foreign land. The extraordinary last supper scene, with the monks drinking red wine and listening to Swan Lake on an old tape player, has been unfairly criticised for laying things on a bit thick, for unnecessary sentimentality which makes too obvious a contrast with the horror to follow. But perhaps there is another way of looking at it? We know what is to come, but what if the monks are full of joy because they think they have made it? The ninth brother has just returned from France bearing gifts – cheese, letters, and medicine. To mark his arrival, they take a group photo, a rare frivolity in their austere lives. All seems well. What if they have gone too far? What if they have no idea how in-too-deep they are?

This could also apply to tragic figures like Daniel Pearl, or Vittorio Arrigoni, or western drug dealers in Dubai who receive the death penalty. Western arrogance manifests itself in a number of ways; one of these is the feeling that certain rules do not apply to us. Perhaps deep down the monks were blinded by the villagers adoration, by the feeling that they were an inseparable part of the landscape (this effect is heightened by the monks’ lack of a back-story), preventing them from seeing that they were in the middle of one of the most brutal conflicts in modern times and that as French Catholic monks they were particularly vulnerable. Amidst all the contemplation and soul-searching, so movingly shot and depicted, we get no sense of limits being applied. There is only the either/or – the mission or the nothingness, no point going elsewhere to help other people, no thought seriously given to returning to their families in France. It may be a terribly humanist thing to say, but this seems a terrible waste.

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