Tuesday, 19 October 2010

I went back to work on Monday for a rest ....

... after a rather busy weekend.

On the Saturday, Zero and I were at Aid to the Church in Need's event "Hope without Fear" at Westminster Cathedral. I will leave Auntie Joanna to describe the day. ACN's own report of the day is here. In addition to what these reports describe, the update by John Pontifex on the situation in Pakistan was also very moving. There were perhaps two common themes to the situation in Sudan and in Pakistan that were apparent during the day. The first is the situation of Christianity within the environment of an extremist  and violent interpretation of Islam. The second is the way in which Catholic prelates find themselves, in the exercise of their essentially pastoral and evangelical mission, taking a position within the political arena. So, for example, the Catholic Church in Sudan is strictly neutral with regard to the outcome of the forthcoming referendum about the future of southern Sudan. But the Church is very involved in teaching about the underlying principles that should determine how people vote in the referendum - Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio, Sudan articulated this with the strap-line "Choose life". By this strap-line he intended that a vote should be cast in favour of what will promote justice, reduce violence, reduce fear and promote respect for the dignity of peoples.

On Sunday, I went to see "Of Gods and Men". This has had two screenings in London as part of the 2010 London Film Festival. My previous posts on this film can be found here and here, so I will not repeat what I say there. Booking was open to the general public after the "priority booking" period on 27th September. Both screenings were sold out by 28th September. WindowstotheSoul has a commentary on this film after she saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival. My viewing of the film on Sunday bears out all that she has to say, so I am going to assume that you go and read her commentary first. I would add to it the following thoughts.

The earliest scenes reminded me of the film Into Great Silence, which portrayed the life of the monks at La Grande Chartreuse. The intention of these scenes is to present to the audience the every day life of the monks, from dawn to dusk, and it does this in a manner that struck me as being by way of images and, in a certain sense, "without words" (not quite literally without words, but with only the occasional exchange of dialogue).  It also shows the insertion of the monks in the life of their neighbours, something that WindowstotheSoul comments on.

The film is very powerful, and has some intensely moving moments. I think that my knowledge of the story of the monks before seeing the film made it only more powerful, because I was able to recognise the significance of some of the exchanges more readily as a result. In the question and answer session with the writer/producer after the screening (I was only able to stay for the first 20 minutes or so of this), he described how, in some respects, the producer and director wanted to achieve an absolute authenticity to the original events whilst at other times they were trying to convey the sense or spirit of the events. (This reminds me somewhat of Jessica Hausner's Lourdes, which I saw this time last year, also at the London Film Festival.)  So, the actors were chosen and made up to physically resemble as closely as possible the monks they were playing. They learnt to sing and pray the office, so when the film portrays the monks together in prayer the sound we here is the singing of the actors themselves and not an overdub. The chapel at the monastery was reconstructed on location exactly as it was in the original monastery. The dialogue between Christian de Cherge, the prior, and the guerilla leader when he comes to the monastery - a key moment in the film and in the historical events - is portrayed exactly as it is reported to have happened. Comparing the portrayal of the event in the film and in John Kiser's book, the film understates, I think, the assertiveness of the prior in this situation - according to the book, Christian was quite genuinely angry that weapons had been brought into the monastery and so ordered them out. Another remark that describes the monastery as the branches on which the birds of the surrounding community perch and shelter - a key expression of the way in which the monks were viewed by the nearby villagers - is also included in one of the dialogues in the film. The way in which the monks grew together in their fear and as a result of their collective decision (based in each monk's own individual conviction that they could not leave) to stay in the monastery despite the danger is portrayed in an invented scene, however. This shows the monks at dinner with Swan Lake playing on the tape recorder, the camera moving from one monk to another, showing their tense smiles and their tears expressing the mixed emotion of fear and communion. More than once, a monk is shown lifting a small glass of wine to their lips, hesitating and then putting it down again, a quite amazing image of the way in which they are coming to terms with possible martyrdom.

The film ends with the quotation of part of Christian de Cherge's testament, contained in a letter sent much earlier to a family member and only to be opened in the event of his death. The appeal for interreligious dialogue that it makes has only become more relevant in the years since the monks died. The producer described how, in France, where the film has the added sensitivity of referring to the French role in the recent history of Algeria, many screenings have been arranged in local communities as an encouragement to dialogue within those communities. What interests me, though, and something I would have liked to ask the producer had I had the chance, is that the dialogue portrayed in the film is one of one religion (Christianity/Catholicism) with another religion (Islam, and in part a violent corruption of Islam). It is not a dialogue between secularism and Islam - so do secularised developed societies need to rediscover their religious roots as a basis for entering into the dialogue shown in this film?

A final thought. The producer recognised that the film has different levels: human, political, religious. He himself has no religious belief, but nevertheless the story of the monks has captured his attention, and he has worked on a film that portrays religious life very accurately and positively. It is encouraging that a producer and director should engage with a strongly religious theme with such enthusiasm and integrity as has been the case here.

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