Only hours before I was to attend the media screening for Of Gods And Men, which details the events leading up to the murder of French monks by Muslim extremists in Algeria, news broke that US forces had located and killed Al Quaeda terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden. You could say that was ironic – Christian forces trumping Muslim terrorists and countering said film's subject matter – but that would be a simplistic and unfair reading of the film.
For French director Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods And Men is not a “Christian = good, Muslim = bad” treatise. His retelling of those fateful events in Algeria 1993-96 is mostly a study of unwavering devotion to one's faith in the face of great personal danger.
Yes, the collective of Trappist monks – eight men all originally from France – are Christians but the extent of any proselytizing, within the film and the monastery, remains within that monastery's four walls; most of Beauvois's film focusses on the monks' day-to-day rituals (it's deliberately paced (i.e. slow) but never dull or boring) of prayer, gardening and the operation of a medical clinic in the local village.
The monks (played by French actors including Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach) have been welcomed as a part of the community – tending the sick, providing clothing and shoes where needed, attending local Muslim celebrations – long before political and religious events took hold. Warned by authorities that it is unwise and unsafe to remain, the monks choose not abandon the community which has supported them.
Of course, in the wake of September 11 one's religion, which should always be a private matter between one's self and the deity of their choosing, has become political. Even here in Australia, a so-called secular society, shock jocks, lazy media and lowest common denominator politicians use a distorted reading of Islam to instill fear: Muslim extremists equal all Muslims.
Never mind that Christianity has its own extremists: the Ku Klux Klan, those who bomb abortion clinics, and even the cult which recently predicted – incorrectly – the Rapture on May 21. But they're always labelled as “rogue” or “fringe” elements, not indicative of the Christian faith as a whole. Go figure.
Of Gods And Men doesn't preach the greatness of Christianity, but nor does it the “evils” of Islam: it celebrates the beauty and heroism of devout faith. As a professed atheist, I can admire, and at times envy, the ability to believe in something greater than one's self and the courage to commit to those beliefs wholeheartedly.
That appreciation doesn't include or endorse suicide bombings or the bombing of abortion clinics. Or the murders of eight innocent men, whatever their religion. And if there is a “god”, I doubt they'd endorse such acts of “devotion” either.