Of Gods and Men

A bemuseing and all-too-reverent portrait of an embattled monastery.

Into Great Silence, a documentary about a Catholic monastery in the French Alps, was a surprise Christmas success in the UK four years ago. At nearly three hours long, with the pace of a drowsy snail leading a funeral procession, it brought new meaning to the term "sleeper hit", and satisfied a need for contemplation in the middle of the seasonal blowout. That must be the rationale behind releasing Of Gods and Men at the same time of year.

Also set in a monastery, it is superficially a very different film - a fictionalised version of events that took place in 1996, when French Cistercian monks in Tibhirine, Algeria, refused to flee despite the violence engulfing the area. However, the pictures plainly share an awe for their subject. They marvel without analysis or criticism at the idea of unshakeable faith.

The Monastère de l'Atlas, perched above an Algerian village, is accessible by winding stone steps that call to mind the staircase to heaven in Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death. The monks, including their leader, Christian (Lambert Wilson), and the elderly medic Luc (Michael Lonsdale), assist the Muslim villagers with everything from passport applications to health problems. They spend the rest of their time tending the gardens, selling honey, studying, singing and praying.

At the other end of the spectrum of religious devotion from the monks are the fundamentalist groups whose presence is undermining the region's peace. Tension between the government and fundamentalists reaches a peak with the killing of a group of Croatian immigrants. The monks are warned by officials that they could be the next target. Even so, Christian flatly refuses the offer of a military guard, unwilling to accept protection from corrupt politicians.

When the mujahedin arrive at the monastery on Christmas Eve demanding medical supplies, he shakes their leader's hand with only a moment's hesitation, knowing full well that it is the same hand that slaughtered the Croatians. Wilson plays the scene with a suppressed remorse - his face, both alert and reserved, conveys silently a level of turmoil that most actors can only achieve at full pelt.

The director and co-writer, Xavier Beauvois, is fortunate to have a cast capable of hinting at the contradictions he cannot bear to raise elsewhere. As the monks debate whether to stand their ground or escape to safer pastures, Beauvois shows surprisingly little interest in discovering the considerations that lie behind the prospect of being martyred. Hunger, another recent film about martyrdom, was careful to accommodate the character of a priest who offered a dissenting voice, but Beauvois is a flatly literal director.

When the brothers say they will pray for a murder victim, the subsequent shot shows them doing just that. Christian insists that "the Good Shepherd doesn't abandon his flock to the wolves", and a few minutes later he is seen wandering among sheep on a hillside. His respect for the Quran, and the ease with which he differentiates between Islam and those who pervert its teachings, is exemplary, but the essence of the monks as real, complicated people becomes gradually obscured by the film's blind admiration for them.

Beauvois is best known for Don't Forget You're Going to Die (1995), about a young man whose HIV-positive status does nothing to temper his recklessness. Somewhere around the end of that abrasive film, a voice seemed to whisper in Beauvois's ear: "Don't forget to make the audience cry." The same mantra echoes through Of Gods and Men, most obviously in a scene that will be remembered when the rest of the picture is forgotten, in which the brothers listen mutely and tearfully to a recording of Swan Lake as they contemplate their doom.

There's an argument to be made for going much further than Beauvois does. He shows the monks trudging off to meet their fate in a blizzard; they fade from view extremely prettily, unlike the Croatians, whom we see having their throats cut. In its own way, the film bestows on them a euphemistic send-off to set alongside Thelma and Louise or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Upsetting it may be, but it's still tasteful enough that it won't deter the Christmas crowds.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis