Loosely based on actual events that took place between 1993 and 1996, this is the story of 8 French monks living in Algeria in harmony with their Muslim neighbors in the surrounding village.
This particular group of monks are from the Cistercian Order, which means that their defining feature, beyond pacifism, is that they do not proselytize or evangelize. Instead, they devote themselves to pray, worship, and serving the needs of the public at large, which in this case is running a clinic that provides the medical needs of the locals.
Despite their differences in faith, ethnicity, and heritage, these men coexist nicely with the Muslims. All of that changes however, when a group of Islamic Fundamentalists kill a group of foreign workers, upsetting the delicate balance. As the fear and tensions rise, the monks find themselves and their faith tested, forcing them to make some tough choices, especially when they are taken hostage.
Despite the fact that I often have a really irreverent regard for religion (primarily my own beliefs), I can get serious at times, and have much respect for productions such as this movie, that take issues of faith, religion, and acceptance seriously. Being a Catholic, and having spent time around monks at an Abbey, I can say that the film does a great job of how they portray monastic life.
This film is quite quiet, contemplative, and thoughtful, much like its characters. The film has a deliberately easy pace, allowing the viewer to really relax and drink in the world these character inhabit, providing a nice look at the everyday workings of monks doing the mission they were called out for.
I also appreciate the portrayal of the Muslims, and how it's not a purely black and white situation. When things get sour, they are handled in an appropriately downplayed manner, relying on subtlety instead of going visceral.
The film is quite moving, and there's many great moments, but the best moment, hands down, has to be the sequence set to "Swan Lake", which absolutely floored me.
While the ending doesn't totally come as a surprise (especially since its based on true events), it is nevertheless quite good. You could argue that the characters and their motives could have been better developed, but I feel like they did it decently enough. The actors likewise, do a good job, and are quite convincing as a group of men with great senses of compassion and devotion. Where the film really shines is in the departments of mood, tone, atmosphere, production design, and cinematography. It's all simply beautiful.
All in all, this is quite a film. I kept getting interrupted while viewing it, which kept taking me out of the experience, so, if not for that, I'd probably be giving this a higher grade. As it stand though, I have a lot of admiration for this. It's certainly not a film for everyone, but if you've enjoyed what you've read, and think you might like it, then give it a shot.