Music

An antidote to martyr porn

Josh Larsen

A few years back, film critic David Edelstein coined the term torture porn to describe the sort of sadistic, exploitative horror flicks that had begun to dominate the box office. While watching “Of Gods and Men,” a based-on-fact story about French monks who refuse to abandon an Algerian village in the face of Islamic extremism, it struck me that martyr porn could be a variation on that genre. There is something deeply unsettling about movies in which the sacrificial death of a committed believer is depicted with explicit gratuitousness.

Thankfully, “Of Gods and Men” takes a different approach. This is a film of honest intent and great restraint, loosely based on the lives of Cistercian monks in Algeria who were kidnapped in 1996. Surprisingly, the movie is less interested in their final sacrifice than in their struggles to come to terms with what martyrdom means.

Much of the film is spent immersing us in the daily routines of these monks, who live and work among their Muslim neighbors with a harmoniousness that would shock Islamophobic North Americans. As the two groups share in each other’s rituals and even, at one point, prayers, “Of Gods and Men” poses tough questions about interfaith relationships. Where is the line between understanding and endorsing, between evangelism and spiritually compromised participation?

Just as the movie refuses to offer easy answers to these questions, it also resists treating martyrdom as a clear choice. When the monks debate whether or not they should stand by their Muslim neighbors in the face of likely death, it’s treated as a real, soul-wrenching dilemma. “Why be martyrs?” one of them asks, while another suffers a crisis of faith over the decision. Martyrdom isn’t unquestionably celebrated as a noble opportunity – it’s recognized for the difficult, painful, confusing act that it certainly must be for those who undertake it.

Only once does “Of Gods and Men” become tempted to sensationalize the courageousness of these monks. At one point, their prayers are interrupted by a threatening military helicopter hovering over the monastery. In response, the men join together in song, effectively beating back the invaders with immovable faith.

That’s the sort of hyperbole that martyr porn gives in to. More moving, I think, are the movie’s final frames. Without giving too much away, I’ll only say that the monks’ martyrdom is not chronicled in bombast and blood, but in the quiet dignity of a winter mist. It’s a rare triumph of artful subtlety in a genre often overrun by righteous gore.

Do you think martyr porn is a problem? Or do you feel movies about martyrs should be graphic? Does the explicitness help us to understand the sacrifices that such believers make? What movies do you feel go too far? "The Passion of Joan of Arc?""Romero?""Au Hasard Balthazar?""The Mission?""End of the Spear?""The Passion of the Christ?"

(Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.)

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