Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin
SUMMARY: In 1996, a group of eight French monks are living together in a monastery in Algeria. The monks have a very good relationship with the surrounding community, although it is predominantly Muslim. Among other things, the monastery provides free medical care and help with various paperwork to the poor citizens. This peace and harmony is threatened by the emergence of an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, which has begun killing people who are not adhering strictly to the laws of Islam. The army is trying to combat the threat, but are not having much success: their brutal methods often mirror those of the terrorists, and the government is known to be corrupt. Early in the film, the monks, led by Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), are warned that the terrorists might attack the monastery. They are offered protection from the army, but Christian refuses. This causes a rift between the monks: some of them want to leave Algeria and return to France, while others believe they should stay. On Christmas Eve, a group of fundamentalists force their way into the monastery compound and rouse the monks. Christian is summoned and berated, but refuses to give in. He informs the leader, Ali Fayattia, that weapons are forbidden inside the monastery; when Fayattia refuses to put down his weapon, Christian suggests they talk outside. Fayattia has three injured men an hour away, and wants to take the monastery doctor (one of the monks) and the medicine with him. Christian also refuses this, saying that the doctor is too ill to travel, and has too many responsibilities to the townsepeople to leave. He then recites a passage of the Koran which discusses the friendship between Muslims and Christians. Fayattia accepts this refusal, and even apologizes when he learns that he has interrupted the Christmas Eve Mass.
A short time later, Fayattia brings an injured man to the monastery, where the monks care for him. After this, the monastery experiences no more threats, as Fayattia grants it (and the monks) his protection. However, the war between the fundamentalists and the government does not stop, and Fayattia is eventually caught, tortured, and killed by the army. The monks realize that this means their safety is no longer ensured, but when they take a vote, each monk has decided that staying at the monastery is the right course. The men have experienced a lot of inner turmoil throughout this ordeal, but this decision seems to bring them peace: they even have a minor celebration when another monk comes for a visit and brings supplies. Not long after the other monk’s arrival, a group of fundamentalists breaks into the monastery at night and forcibly removes seven of the nine monks (one of them, seemingly the oldest, hides under his bed and escapes notice). The seven captured monks are held hostage as the terrorists request a prisoner exchange. As the film ends, the monks are marched silently through the snow as Christian, in voiceover, discusses his spiritual beliefs and philosophy. An epilogue states that the seven monks were murdered in 1996. The elderly monk who escaped capture died in 2008; at the time of the movie release, the other monk who escaped capture was still alive.
MY TAKE: This movie started really slow, and I was not impressed. For one, monks don’t talk a whole lot; for another, they really don’t have leisure activities, so there’s not a whole lot of action. They pretty much work and conduct Mass. I wasn’t sure what the storyline of the movie was, so I looked it up online, though I tried to avoid spoilers. I succeeded somewhat: I learned that the film was based on the true story of seven monks who were killed in the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. Obviously, this was a little bit of a spoiler, but I didn’t see anything about how they monks died, or what happened to the ones that escaped. It did entice me to keep watching, and the film got a lot better for me after that. Possibly, this is just because things picked up: the monks started to become really conflicted about whether to stay in Algeria or go home to France. I was surprised at this, because I didn’t know that monks had a choice about that: I was also surprised that they would even consider leaving. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t know a lot about monks, but I’ve always thought of them as very self-sacrificing. This is true, but this film also examines the men as human beings, who are afraid of what might happen to them. I don’t think they’re afraid of dying, but they clearly don’t have any desire to become martyrs. About half of the men really struggle with this decision, including some of the older ones, which again surprised me. However, after a period of reflection, all of the men decide that staying is the right thing to do, despite what might happen. Even though this movie is several years old, it seems particularly poignant right now since it involves the relationship between Muslims and Christians. The townspeople, who are not fundamentalist, love the monks: they invite them to parties and socialize with them all the time. The monks, in turn, love and accept the townspeople, instead of trying to force conversion on them. At least one of them (the aptly-named Christian) actually studies the Koran. Personally, I believe that most religions, particularly Islam and Christianity, are worshipping the same God: they just have different prophets and methods. True Islam and true Christianity both preach love and acceptance, and the relationship between the monks and the townspeople seems to be a wonderful example of this. The townspeople are open about their dislike of the fundamentalists, but the monks decide that they are commanded to love, not judge: therefore, they help the injured terrorist that is brought to them. Surprisingly, Christian’s negative but polite refusal of the Fayattia gains his respect, and the monastery is temporarily left alone. Unforutnately, this didn’t last. Christian actually berated the head of the area army group for torturing Fayattia, saying that it was inhuman and wrong. The film shows the seven captured monks being marched through the snow by the terrorists, suggesting that they were responsible for the murders. Apparently, in reality the terrorists did claim responsibility for the act, but French secret service documents later revealed that they might have been killed by the army in a botched rescue attempt. If only everybody had been able to (is able to) practice the same love and tolerance that the monks did, a lot of bloodshed and violence could have been avoided.
RATING: Starts slow, but worth watching.