Algeria's Islamist violence stirs up Cannes film fest
A tale of Catholic monks caught up in Islamist violence in Algeria threw the tense issues of religious war and French colonial history into the mix at the Cannes film festival Tuesday.
French film-maker Xavier Beauvois's "Of Gods and Men" is based on the true story of a monastery in Algeria which after years of caring for local Muslims is threatened by a war between militants and the army.
A tense plot combined with red-hot topical issues give the film a possible edge in the race for the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the world's biggest film festival which is awarded on Sunday.
The film is based on the murder of seven monks by militants in Tibiherine, northern Algeria, in 1996, during Algeria's eight-year civil war between government forces and Islamists.
A French investigation pointed to involvement by the Algerian military in the monks' abduction, but the film does not explore this strand of the story.
The film also touches on the sensitive issue of France's history in north Africa, with one Algerian character explicitly blaming the colonialists for the social problems which he says gave rise to Islamic extremism in the country.
Another film in competition for the Palme, "Outside Of the Law" by French-Algerian film-maker Rachid Bouchareb, stirred controversy on the same issue before the festival started.
Right-wing political figures who had not seen the film accused Bouchareb of rewriting history in his handling of the role of French forces in the country's war for independence.
The drama in "Of Gods And Men" centres on the monks' painful moral choice of whether to flee as danger threatens, or stay to support the local people.
"It is rare these days in our selfish society that there are people who care for others, who pay attention to the religion of others," Beauvois told a news conference on Tuesday.
Speaking to AFP, he also hailed the "faith and rigour" of the real-life monks, played in the film by French actors including top names Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale.
"My work with my actors was to make a bunch of people as wonderful as them," he added. "If society had just five percent of people like them, things would be better."
Two other French films are in the running for the Palme, Bertrand Tavernier's period drama "The Princess of Montpensier" and "On Tour" by Mathieu Amalric, about American burlesque dancers touring in France.
© 2010 AFP