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Margarethe von Trotta's Vision: a provocative, historically sensitive and sympathetic portrayal. (Zeitgeist Films)
Margarethe von Trotta's Vision: a provocative, historically sensitive and sympathetic portrayal. (Zeitgeist Films)

Michael Higgins

Of Gods and Men and the purity of faith Add to ...

It's that time in the Christian calendar when the film industry and the television networks decide to saturate the public with their predictable array of biblical epics, turgid hagiographies and pious profiles. Charlton Heston will make his annual reprise; Franco Zeffirelli and Pier Paolo Pasolini will be trucked out; and a spate of documentaries will unveil the latest code, conspiracy and institutional skulduggery that have managed to dupe the credulous for centuries.

But a remarkable thing has been unfolding in the industry in recent years - neither circumscribed by calendar nor past practice - that bears watching, if for no other reason because it reflects a maturation in the treatment of religious sensibility and speaks honestly to the relentless quest for authenticity that lies at the heart of genuine religious faith.

German director Philip Gröning, after years of holy persistence, was finally granted permission to film life in La Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. The result, Into Great Silence (first released in 2005), is a rich and lyrical evocation of monastic spirituality that has no comparable cinematic parallel and that continues to enjoy critical and popular success. Mr. Gröning's contemporary, Margarethe von Trotta, has received similar critical attention with her film Vision (2009), a provocative, historically sensitive and deeply sympathetic portrayal of the medieval luminary and genius Hildegard von Bingen.

Not to be outdone, France, the most secular of the Western European powers, has created the film sensation of a generation with Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men, which won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The recipient of numerous honours both within and outside France, Des hommes et des dieux manages with extraordinary adroitness and subtlety to address the complex mosaic of Muslim-Christian tensions, postcolonial guilt and that particular brand of Gallic existential angst that defines contemporary France. The film is a dramatic realization of the Christian narrative of passion, death and resurrection as lived by seven Trappist monks in Tibhirine, Algeria, in 1996.

This is especially intriguing, given the tortured relationship the country has with its Catholic past. Although the President of the Republic is an honorary canon of the church of St. John Lateran in Rome (this is the Pope's own church, and Nicolas Sarkozy made a point of attending the ceremony of installation, a rare gesture), and given that every president has been entitled to the obsequies and dignities that attend a solemn requiem in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris for the past century, and given that the French continue to treasure the contributions made to the political and cultural sensibilities of the country by the likes of such Catholic shapers as Jacques Maritain, Robert Schuman, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Francis Poulenc and Olivier Messiaen, to name only a few, it's difficult to see in post-1789 France any compelling reasons for retaining the honorific "the eldest daughter of the Church" bestowed by a thankful pontiff in the Middle Ages.

After all, France is currently embroiled in yet another iteration of its ban on symbols of religious identity in public spaces, and it's also been the seat of much of the polarizing rhetoric that has accompanied the restoration of the Tridentine rite by Pope Benedict XVI. The altar wars are alive and raw on French soil.

So why, then, a movie of such luminous faith, inspired not by a political or theological agenda but by an earnest curiosity in the heroism and purity of religious witness?

In Of Gods and Men, France has produced a masterpiece in the midst of anguish and confusion, philosophical cynicism and institutional despair, because Mr. Beauvois and co-writer Étienne Comar stripped the Christian message to its essentials and, in so doing, captured the beauty of the Cistercian spiritual and artistic genius born in France in the 12th century and of the ascetical rigour of the Trappist life born in France in the 17th century.

A revivifying of the "eldest daughter," an Easter miracle, or a rare confluence of art and spirituality in the land of Foucault and Derrida?

Michael Higgins is co-author, with Peter Kavanagh, of Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal . He is the past president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

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