Those who try to make their life secure will lose it,
but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you,
on that night there will be two in one bed; one will
be taken and the other left. There will be two
women grinding meal together; one will be taken
and the other left.” Then they asked him, “Where,
Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there
the vultures will gather.”
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
French director Xavier Beauvois, who also with Etienne Comar wrote the script, based his film on the martyrdom of a group of Cistercian-Trappist monks living in a monastery near the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. During the last decade of the 20th century a civil war wracked the country, with Muslim fundamentalists rising up against the government. The nine inhabitants of the Monastère de l’Atlas are caught in the crossfire between the violent Muslim insurgents and the equally violent (and brutal) army. With both urging them to leave, the monks must decide whether to leave or to stay. This beautiful film is the story of how they arrived at their decision.
To his credit, Mr. Beauvois does not turn the film into the thriller that it could have become, nor does he take sides in the political struggle. The government is said to be corrupt. The army brutally slays one of the terrorist leaders and drives his body, tied to a truck, through the streets as a display of what happens to those who oppose it. The officer’s only regret is that the man died before they could torture him further. And the Muslim terrorists, though shown in one scene killing some Croatian workers, can also be civil, as seen when they storm into the monastery demanding medicine and care for wounded comrades, but then leave, without their demands being met and even apologizing for the intrusion when told that this night is different, it being the Eve of the birth of Jesus.
The film begins with the sun rising over the hills as the monks dress and meet in the chapel for worship. The pace of the film is in keeping with monastic life, slow and dignified, so much so that some critics (younger ones I suspect, conditioned by so many action/thrillers from Hollywood) have complained of this. Nor does the film employ the usual soundtrack music to signal how we should feel about a scene. And yet music aplenty there is, with many scenes shot in the chapel where the monks chant ever so beautifully, and then there is an incredibly wonderful scene near the end when the monks are swept up by Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, played over a boom box as they sit down for supper. Any resemblance of this meal to The Last Supper is strictly intentional, I am sure.
After a girl is stabbed on a bus because she was not wearing traditional Muslim attire, and the Croatian workers are killed nearby, an army officer orders Dom Christian (Lambert Wilson), head of the monastery, to accept protection or to leave. When the monk refuses both orders, some of his fellow monks, at a later meeting, are upset, accusing him of exceeding his authority. He calls for a vote, and the group is divided, some wanting to leave, others wanting to stay, and the eldest, Br. Amedee (Jacques Herlin), saying that it is too early to tell. Br. Christian sides with this opinion.
The monastic routine of life continues, and we see that the monks have good relations with the villagers—indeed, we learn that the village is there because of the monastery. The monks, being of a contemplative order, do not proselytize, instead offering loving services to all— medical care, giving out sneakers when needed, writing letters for the illiterate, and offering sound advice to those who seek it. The latter we see as a teenaged girl comes to Br. Luc’s (Michael Lonsdale) for advice on love, she obviously being comfortable with and trusting him. When a family celebrates a son’s khtana (circumcision), all of the monks are invited, and at the party the parents and other adults also are comfortable with their presence. There seems to be no question of the appropriateness of them all participating in the prayer service led by the local imam. The monks also participate in the local bazaar where they sell the honey and produce from their farm.
On the night that the band of terrorists led by Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi) invade the monastery, Dom Christian keeps calm, telling the leader that this is a place of peace where arms are not allowed. When Ali Fayattia replies that he never parts with his, Br. Christian walks toward the door as he says that they will talk outside. Almost meekly the terrorist follows, and he lists his demands for a doctor and medicine. Dom Christian refuses, and, apparently trying to establish a connection, quotes from a passage of the Koran about Muslims and Christians. The Muslim leader finishes the quote, revealing both his knowledge of the sacred writing and his respect for it—this latter by telling his men to leave. When Dom Christian calls after him that this night is different, Fayattia turns and comes back to him, asking why? Learning that it is the night before the birthday of Jesus, the Muslim says that he is sorry for disturbing them. He even extends his hand, and for a moment we fear that the monk will not return this gesture of respect, but of course, he does. The moment of danger is passed, but as he says later to his fellow monks, not over.
Much more happens, with brief scenes showing each of the 8 monks (a 9th will return from a journey on the night of their being kidnapped) wrestling with his conscience over the upcoming vote. One writes a letter to a friend in which he quotes Pascal. Another, who had wanted to leave, wrestles with his fear, his agonized cry from the chapel that God not abandon him heard by the others in their separate rooms, reminding one of the Lord’s similar late night agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. When some of the monks meet with the leading villagers they are brought to face with the implications of their leaving, their neighbors almost pleading with them to stay. A woman tells them, “We are the birds, you are the branch on which we sit. If you leave, what happens to us?” The final vote is a scene of great power, with one of the monks stating that a servant is not above his Master providing one of the reasons for their unanimous vote to stay. Even the most fearful of all, Dom Christolph, is now convinced this is the right course. Their last moments in the monastery are sublime as they listen enraptured to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” While they sit at their supper table, each with a glass of special wine, the camera focuses upon their faces, one by one. Each shows signs of their struggle and of their finding the peace that comes from accepting the cross awaiting them. Just a little earlier Br. Christian had given what amounted to a brief homily that included this insight, “The Incarnation for us is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity.” That, he says, had been their mission to the villager
It is encouraging that such an out and out Christian film received the Grand Prize of the Jury at the last Cannes Film Festival. I wish that the films made by American Christian filmmakers could reach such a high level of artistry. It is so difficult to make a film of good people without turning them into cloying saints: all of the monks in the film have given themselves to Christ, and yet they display human qualities of fear, irritability (one, angry at his brother monk, cusses, using the “F” word), and even doubt, requiring each to wrestle mightily to arrive at his decision. None of them wants to be a martyr because they enjoy this life so much. And like Becket in T.S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, they do not want to succumb to “the last treason” of doing “the right thing for the wrong reason.” It might be a while before showings of this remarkable film spread across our country, so I urge you to look out for it and bring a group with you when it does arrive. I thought I had found my No. One for 2010 when Vision came to Cincinnati, but after watching a screener of this French film, there was no doubt in my mind which film was the best that was produced last year.
For reflection/Discussion Much of what follows was written for your personal reflection. I realize that there are far more questions than could be used in a single sesson, so I urge the leader to be flexible, selecting what she/he believes are the most pertinent for the group—and to be ready to pick upon any that seem to deal with a question or remark from the group. If you think the questions are all helpful, you might copy and reproduce them for members to take them home for further meditation.
1. There are so many moving and memorable scenes in this film: which one(s) stands out for you? Is there a particular person with whom you can identify? In order to help recall them I have added to their names their vote on leaving or staying that they made at their second discussion of what they should do (which came after the terrorists’ intrusion).
Dom. Christian – Agreed with Amedee Br. Jan Pierre – Always for staying.
Br. Luc – the elderly doctor, stay. Br. Paul – Bald, leave gradually.
Br. Christolph – Fearful, wants to go. Br. Celestine – Ill, votes to go Br. Amedee – Doesn’t know yet; need pray. Br. Michel – Has no one else, stay.
Note: If your time is limited, this question will be enough if you go around the group and obtain an asnswer from each member. By asking why they chose the character, most of the issues of the film will emerge.
2. What struck you about the monks’ discussion of what they should do in regard to the violence? Were you surprised that some of them were afraid? What did you think of Br. Luc’s humorous suggestion that they run and hide? How was this a bit prophetic?
3. One of the monks in the village uses a copier at a shop while watching the news on TV. What contrast do you see between what he is copying and what is being shown? (Sheet music of songs of peace and a scene of rescuers with victims of a bombing!)
4. What do you think of Br. Luc’s advice to the girl who queries him about love? What do we learn of his own past? How would you describe their relationship, based on this scene?
5. What positive side of Islam does the film offer? The family ceremony and party; the village elders talking with Dom Christian and Br. Luc about the deeds of the terrorists?
6. During supper one of the monks reads from a journal the following: “Accepting our powerlessness and our extreme poverty is an invitation, an urgent appeal to create with others relationships not based on power. Recognizing my weaknesses, I accept those of others. I can bear them, make them mine in imitation of Christ. Such an attitrude transforms us for our mission. Weakness in itself is not a virtue, but the expression of a fundamental reality which must constantly be refashioned by faith, hope and love. The apostle’s weakness is like Christ’s, rooted in the mystery of Easter and the strength of the spirit . It is neither passivity nor resignation. It requires great courage and incites one to defend justice and truth and to denounce the temptation of force and power.” How does this apply to the listeners, eventually working in the events of their lives?
7. What do you think of the way that Dom Christian dealt with the terrorist visitors? How did he, even though the intruders had the guns, command the situation? What do you think of his lying about not having enough medicine to share? Earlier we had seen a copy of the Koran on his desk, along with some Christian books: how do you think his knowledge of the Muslim holy book enable the man of peace and the man of war to connect? When he told the Muslim leader that tonight was Christmas, did you expect the terrorist to respond as he did? What place does Jesus occupy in the Koran and the Muslim religion? Why do you think Dom Christian was slow to accept the hand of the Muslim?
8. During the above incident what has happened to Christolph and Michel? When they are brought out of hiding, is there any criticism of them? How do we see this acceptance of weaknesses at other times? How do you think this solidifies the fellowship of the group? Do you find such acceptance in your church or smaller group?
9. Right after the above incident and following the Christmas Mass Br. Luc is tending to the wound of one of them. What does Dom Christian do while the others are looking on? In the scene in which he goes outdoors to meditate, what else do you see that suggests he is the tender shepherd?
10. While in the office of the district official, the latter tells Dom Christian that if they stay, they will become a pawn and that their sacrifice will eventually be exploited: how is this like a prophecy?
11. What do the villagers think of the monks leaving? When one monk says that they are like birds sitting on a branch, what does he mean? How does the woman turn this saying around, showing the villagers dependance on the monks?
12. After seeing the dead men on the road Br. Christolph prays that night, alone in the chapel. How is this like a Gethsemane scene? Have you had similar feelings of being abandoned by God? What helped you through such a dark time? How is his membership in the close fellowship the best thing during such a time of fear and doubt?
13. As we hear the monks’ beautiful chant about “keeping watch with Christ,” what is Dom Christian doing? How is his tender care of the sleeping Br. Luc like God keeping watch over us?
14. When the army officer takes Dom Christian to identify the body of the dead torrorist, how do we see that the soldier and the monk are from very different worlds? What do you think the world view of the officer is, especially in regard to enemies?
15. Do you think that Dom Christian deals well with Br. Christolph’s fearful questions about martyrdom? What does the prior say is their purpose for being at the monastery?
16. How is the chant immediately following the above (I think it is based on psalm 143) appropriate for the state of Christolph’s soul?
17. How did you feel after the monks took their final vote? What do you think of Christolph’s answer, “Let God set the table here for everyone. Friends and enemies” ?
18. Br. Luc in a letter he is writing quotes from Pascal’s Pensee, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious reasons.” How is this true for both Muslim and Christian fanatics? What are some of the terrible things that “Christians” have done in the name of God?
19. After closing his letter by asking for prayers, Br. Luc goes to a wall mural of what looks looks the scourging of Jesus: how does this show his acceptance of what lies before him? After this quiet moment how is the next scene somewhat startling? Think about the contrast between the deadly armed helicoptor and the monk
s chanting in the chapel below.
20. Reflect on Dom Christian’s comment about how they celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass right after the visit of the terrorists, and how they survived by going about their daily tasks. “We had to resist the violence. And day after day I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child that we are. The Incarnation for us is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of the Incarnation remains what we are going to live. In this way what we’ve already lived here takes root as well as what we’re going to live in the future.” In what ways can you say that you and your church are living up to this? What are you or your church doing that would lead others to see Christ at work?
21. In the next scene in the chapel the Gospel Lesson is from Luke 17:33-37. How is this appropriate for what is about to happen?
22. In the dining room scene when Br. Luc places the two bottles of wine on the kitchen ledge, what does the ledge look like? As the camera pans around the group of men, how do we see that this is a holy moment, an experience of kairos time? What does Tchaikovsky’s music add to this? Do you think they have entered into the unity that Jesus spoke of in John 17?
23. What do you think of Dom Christian’s last words? What do you think he means by saying that he too is “complicit in the evil that prevails over the world’? He, a member of a band of peaceful monks? And yet, the founding of the monastery probably was made possible by French imperialism—and were they wise or kind rulers over the Algerians? How does he show a broader view of Algerians and Islam than that of his French countrymen? How does he include even his “friend of the last minute” in his thank you? What is he referencing when he says, “you knew not what you were doing” ? (You might wonder how we have these words: the scriptwriters took them from a testament that Dom Christian wrote and left to be opened in the event of his death by violence. For more information on the fate of the monks go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_the_monks_of_Tibhirine. And then at the end of the article in “External Links” click onto “Martyrs of Atlas,” and you will be taken to the Cistercian website with information on the Dom’s testimony.) Another resource (which I haven’t seen—yet) is The Monks of Tibhirine by John W. Kiser, referred to by the film’s director as “my Bible” while working on the film. Amazon.com has a good deal of information on the book.
24. The postlude says how the monks died is “a mystery.” Some have bizarrely claimed that it was not the kidnapers who beheaded them, but the army that attacked the insurgents’ camp in a rescue attempt and then cut off their heads in order to shift blame onto the rebels. Does this really matter, since men from both sides shot and killed people, often indiscriminately? For another excellent film, in a different setting (Central America), in which innocents are caught in deadly crossfire between insurgents and government forces, see John Sayles’ Men With Guns.
25. What do you think of the monks’ collective decision? Dom Christian uses the word “mad” to refer to their decisions, that of staying as well as that of becoming monks in the first place. From the standpoint of the army officer and the government official their vote to stay was “mad” or naïve. Yet how is this “madness” (or “folly” to use St. Paul’s description of the cross) central to the gospel?
26. How did you feel at the end of the film? Sad, perhaps, but what else? Do you see the hope and anticipation in Br. Christian’s farewell note?