Thursday, March 10, 2011

Religion and film 2

The second film was Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men" ("Des Hommes es des Dieux"), the true story of a community of French Trappists in Algeria who were victims of the violent unrest there in the 1990s - although they knew they are in danger, they chose to stay. It's a beautiful if not always easy film, certainly deserving of its accolades.
I went to see it with my sometimes excitable friend M, who was incensed by A. O. Scott's enthusiastic review in the Times which described this as one of a handful of powerful religion films in recent years - but his highest praise was this: [M]artyrdom is not part of the Cistercian creed, Scott notes; What motivates [Brother] Christian and the others is rather an almost fanatical humanism. Maybe. But the film is suffused (as "Into Great Silence," for instance, is not) by the rhythms of monastic communal life - we spend perhaps half the film with the monks in their daily office - and an explicitly Christian spirituality.

[T]hough [Beauvois'] sympathy for the Trappists is evident, the film does not treat them as saints, or as mouthpieces for any particular theology, Scott also remarks. Rather, "Of Gods and Men” works to balance the two terms of its title and treats the relationship between them as a grave and complex mystery." That's better, a little. Except that saints aren't mouthpieces for theology - which is where this film dovetailed with "Exploring Religious Ethics." Just this morning we discussed a reflection on sainthood by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, focusing on the way he began:

"All it takes to make a man a saint is Grace. Anyone who doubts this knows neither what makes a saint nor a man," Pascal observes in Pensées with his characteristic trenchant style. I start with this observation to point out the dual perspective of these reflections: in the saint the celebration of God (indeed, of his Grace) combines with the celebration of man, with his potential and his limitations, his aspirations and his achievements.

(grace completes nature - it doesn't have to overthrow it!) and culminated in this observation:

In an age of the collapse of collective utopias, in an age of indifference and the lack of appetite for all that is theoretical and ideological, new attention is being paid to the saints, unique figures in whom is found not a theory nor even merely a moral, but a plan of life to be recounted, to be discovered through study, to be loved with devotion, to be put into practice with imitation.

"Of Gods and Men" seems to Scott an apotheosis of humanism precisely because it is true hagiography. The seven Trappists aren't superhuman - each is a fully realized individual - but they are able to show a dazzling human potential because of their life together, and its anchoring in the redemptive suffering of Christ. Their humanity is never left behind or even eclipsed by their heroism. The human is exalted.

I can't resist citing one of my favorite lines from William James (which I'm surprised I haven't yet quoted in this blog):

the human charity which we find in all saints, and the great excess of it which we find in some saints, [are] a genuinely creative social force ... The saints are authors, auctores, increasers, of goodness.... The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world's affairs to be preposterous. And yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animaters of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant. It is not possible to be quite as mean as we naturally are, when they have passed before us. One fire kindles another; and without that over-trust in human worth which they show, the rest of us would lie in spiritual stagnancy.
(Varieties, 1902 edition, 357-58)

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