Imagine you are a teenage girl on a bus, thinking you usual thoughts, as it carries you from school to home, and you are stabbed to death because apparently you are not wearing the 'hijab' which your murderer believes you should. Now imagine that your murderer may not have believed this, but only wanted the wider world to believe that this was his motivation. He is an agent provocateur of the security forces of an embattled state that wishes to full blacken its enemy, hoping to alienate the 'people' from them.
This was the reality of the Algerian civil war that erupted after a second round of elections were canceled in 1991 after the first were won by the Islamic Salvation Front. It was a strikingly brutal conflict where nothing was as it appeared. An army roadblock might be a 'terrorist' one, the 'terrorists' in disguise but who, more deeply, are terrorists and who the army? In all more than 160,000 people were killed including the seven Cistercian monks at the Monastery of Notre Dame at Tibhirine of which this compelling film treats.
The film beautifully evokes the monastic life of a poor monastery, close to its Muslim community, assisting the villagers in diverse ways - as creators of employment, as managing a dispensary, as sharers in poverty. The film's slowness works effectively, enabling you to glimpse the reality of these men, their different textures, abilities, outlooks. Since you know the story's end: seven of the nine are going to die, it does manage to allow you to sense the gathering tension as the situation around them worsens and their safety becomes more greatly imperiled.
Most importantly it helps you to see why they stayed. At the outset I (as a natural coward) found this hard to imagine. I was with the monks who wanted to depart, as a majority did at the outset. The authorities most decidedly wanted them to go, though not, critically, the villagers who saw them both as part of them and as a possible protection - both spiritual and material - from the gathering storm. They did not seek martyrdom, short of leaving, and sought every path to avoid it (as did two of the monks at the end by effectively hiding away).
Ultimately they did not leave because they were convicted of a two-fold identification: with Christ who did not refuse the cup of suffering that He was offered and with the villagers, with whose lives of poverty, they were so intimately bound.
Though the film effectively focuses on the monks, it does do so at the cost of either truly seeing the lives of the villagers they accompany or a wider picture of the conflict that engulfed them. The former is truly a flaw, the latter ultimately works to great effect, as it gives you a feel of a conflict that, in truth, at some deep level was not, at the time or since, truly comprehended.
At one point Dom Christian, the community's head, is talking to one of the monk's who is most wracked by the anxieties of staying and compares the insanity of staying with the original 'insanity' of choosing to be a monk. Both are choices that 'the world' has difficulty comprehending but genuine Christianity has always been a choice of foolishness.
There is only one moment when you suspect your emotions as viewer are being overtly manipulated. It is near the end, what is portrayed as a final meal, when one of the community has returned from a trip away. The monk who runs the dispensary brings out two bottles of wine and places in the tape recorder a recording of Swan Lake so that the meal might not be accompanied by reading (as would be traditional) but music. The camera dwells on the faces of the monks resonantly as the music unfolds. It appears too 'sentimental' or 'contrived' to be true - but was apparently in fact, sometimes fact behaves like fiction (or perhaps good fiction is simply recognizing the heightened, patterned nature of reality)!
The monks were taken apparently as hostages by an Islamasist group to negotiate with the French government the release of one or more of their own - though virtually every subsequent step and how they actually met their deaths is a mystery.
I can only end with Dom Christian de Chergé's extraordinary letter anticipating his death and forgiving his future murderer. It has become a classic text of witness.
"If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?
I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I know the contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain idealism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam is something different. It is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed it often enough, I think, in view of and in the knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already respecting believing Muslims.
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.
This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!
And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!"
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