Film Festival Honors Monks; Gaudì's Sagrada Familia

"Of Gods and Men" Echoes Baghdad Killings

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- This week I got served a healthy slice of humble pie. After years of dismissing the Cannes film festival as the supermarket of silly ideologies, a new film forced me to re-evaluate that assessment.

For several weeks, billboards have been promoting a new French film, "Des Hommes et des Dieux" (Of Gods and Men) directed by Xavier Beauvois. It had premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 and won the Grand Prize, the second most prestigious prize at the film festival. Given that other awardees from Cannes have included "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a Romanian film about abortion, and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," this didn't bode well for me.

Furthermore, the top billed actors, Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale seemed like peculiar picks for a film about religion. Lambert Wilson, ex-Calvin Klein model, is best known to Americans as "the Merovingian" in the last two Matrix debacles. Michael Lonsdale played the evil Abbott in "The Name of the Rose" as well as villain Hugo Drax in James Bond's "Moonraker," and was last seen in the anti-Christian film "Agora." The pair appeared to be a recipe for disaster and I thought I would save my time, money and blood pressure by skipping it.

A dear priest friend told me I was mistaken, however, so on All Saints' Day I became one of the ever-growing number of people to see the film. Never was I happier to be proved utterly wrong.

"Of Gods and Men" recounts the true story of seven Trappist monks who were killed in Algeria in 1996, kidnapped and beheaded by unknown assassins. Director Beauvois recounts the story so beautifully that despite the fact that everyone knows the ending, one still remains caught up the events as they unfold. Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale make the film, bringing to life two unforgettable characters.

The film came out during the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, and I saw it the day after the massacre of 46 Christians in Iraq, which brought home the timeliness of the movie. In the West, Christians may be ridiculed or ostracized, but we do not have to face the same witness for our faith that our brethren in other parts of the world do.

The movie opens much like "Into Great Silence," the 2005 documentary that revealed the lives of Carthusian monks at the Grand Chartreuse. We see an austere hallway, and follow the little band of Trappists to their chapel. In the Spartan sacred space, they gather in their white robes and sing their prayers. Shoes scuffle, chairs scrape, and paper crackles as the sounds of everyday life form a sort of percussion to their song.

The camera leaves the chapel to accompany the monks on their daily activities. They live at Our Lady of Atlas, perched above a rickety, impoverished town in Tibhirine. There, they tend their garden, produce jams for the market, and offer the villagers medical assistance, new shoes or just a bit of friendly advice. In the Muslim community they live peacefully and in a warm climate of mutual respect and appreciation.

The film highlights the fact that the centerpiece of their life is prayer. They kneel in adoration together, sing the Divine office and celebrate the Eucharist in community. Although they have a chapter room for discussion and planning, the main source of the community life is their prayer.

The Algerian civil war breaks out around them and murders, soldiers, and terrorists move closer and closer to the little vulnerable monastery on the hill. The little community must decide whether to remain with their flock or flee for safety. The most striking aspect of these discussions of life or death is that while there is fear and uncertainty, and even a sort of Agony in the Garden, the violence and instability never manage to penetrate the walls of the monastery.

Despite their very real differences, there are no recriminations or hostilities among the Trappists as they try to decide what to do. Together, they try to discern God's will for them. The film brings a vision of community life to those of alien to it, and indeed one feels drawn to this brotherhood.

There are many striking moments to the film, none with sweeping music or special effects, nor the heroic defiance popular in our superhero age. These quiet men simply love. They love their flock, they love each other and most of all they love God. The last letter sent by Father Christian, the prior of the monastery, holds no anger regarding his circumstances, but only forgiveness for his attackers. In this testimony of the power of love, rarely seen in cinema, these Trappists bring new meaning to the Magnificent Seven.

The film has already been released in France and Italy and the rights were purchased by Sony pictures for English language distribution. Thanks to the Cannes film festival, the movie has received both recognition and distinction.

In a world where novelty and variety are most prized, "Of Gods and Men" sanctifies the everyday and the commonplace, it shows how heroes are born in the most unlikely places with the most unexpected faces, and that God's transcendent power penetrates even (or especially) the darkest hours.

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Catalonia's Church

This week, Benedict XVI will visit Spain on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and then he will consecrate the Church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, conferring on it the title of basilica.

The new honorific for this church has left some perplexed. The strange forms and style of the Sagrada Familia are confusing to many Catholics, especially Americans. While no one doubts the wisdom of Pope Benedict's decisions, it seems that many wish that he chose a more traditionally attractive church.

I have been fascinated by this church for over nine years, ever since I started accompanying my students to Barcelona for the first weekend of Spring break. I would take them a first day to the medieval churches of Barcelona, and our director would take them the next day to the works of Gaudì. The continuity between Barcelona's great age of Christian architecture in the 14th century and the Sagrada Familia built at the height of Catalonian nationalism is startling.

The Sagrada Famila was the last architectural work of Antonio Gaudì, a Catalonian architect who lived from 1852 to 1926. Gaudì died while working on the church after being hit by a tram, and his cause for canonization has been opened. After almost a century the church remains incomplete, but it is one of the most interesting works-in-progress in the world.

Gaudì lived during a of period of resurgence in Catalan nationalist sentiment and he was a member of the "Catalan Association of Scientific Excursions," dedicated to visiting the territory's historic monuments. This love of the land, architecture and culture of Catalonia was beautifully expressed in the artistic movement of Modernismo, of which Gaudì was a major figure. He incorporated the national symbol, a shield with four bars into his architecture as well as the theme of St. George, Catalonia's patron saint. Gaudì was even arrested once for answering a Spanish soldier in Catalan.

The Catalonian nationalists rallied to their churches during their independence movement to the point where Dictator Primo de Rivera closed Barcelona's churches to stop a nationalist celebration.

Barcelona boasts several beautiful Gothic churches, including Santa Maria del Mar and the cathedral, co-dedicated to the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia, a Catalonian virgin martyr. Both churches were built in the 14th century during the reign of King Juame II when Barcelona was at the apex of its commercial success.

The churches display a unique view of Gothic architecture; the interior is very high and the columns splay at the top to reach across the vault in slender ribs. The structure recalls nature---the columns lining the apse of Santa Maria del Mar look like the tall native poplar trees of the region with the sunlight filtering into the church.

In the cathedral, the intricate web of ribs and vaults over the ceiling and out towards the spires seem to be more organic than mineral, like vines curling around a trellis.

Six hundred years later, Antonio Gaudì, who loved the nature of his native land, studied the great architectural feats of his nation's past. These two elements, mixed with a great deal of imagination, are the foundation of the Sagrada Familia.

The high external spires, which symbolize the twelve apostles, four evangelists, the Virgin Mary and Christ himself, echo the high spires of the cathedral. The interior maintains the single nave and four aisles which is the form of the earliest Christian basilicas, St. Peter's, St. Paul's and St. John Lateran. The high columns branch out in a web that seems even more organic than Santa Maria del Mar, forming mesmerizing geometric patterns in space.

This man-made space echoes Catalonia's beloved landscape but also recalls the great mystics and saints from this land such as St. Anthony Mary Claret and St. Francisco Coll Guitart in its fascinating forms and captivating upward articulation.

Antonio Gaudì, long before the European Union would attempt to do away with the Christian roots of Europe, gave his nation a church that would bind Catalonia's national identity to its faith like bricks to mortar.

The Sagrada Familia is not the fruit of the modern quest for novelty as many have thought, but more an expression of St. Augustine's description of the Triune God, as a "Beauty ever ancient, ever new."

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org