Director: Xavier Beauvois
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale and others
Set during the Algerian civil war of the nineties this beautiful film (based on actual events) juxtaposes several themes. Seven Trappist monks have lived for many years in harmony with the Muslim inhabitants of a small village located in Algeria’s Atlas mountains. There is a powerful metaphorical sequence where the bell ringing and hymn singing of the monks’ morning matins is followed by the call to prayer of the local muezzin.
Universal spirituality rather than religious moralism shines through in the monks’ everyday lives. The prior (Lambert Wilson) quotes a passage from the Quran to defuse a potentially dangerous confrontation with Islamic extremists, but at the same time does not hesitate to state that the monks are busy celebrating Christmas and that they are not able to give them any of their medicine, because it is needed for the treatment of the local people.
The intractable stance of the Algerian regime towards the Islamists is juxtaposed with the reaction of the village elders to the terrorist killing of foreigners: ‘Who are they? They know nothing about the Quran.’
The overall impression is of the brotherhood of man and not of self indulgent piety or a myopic view of religions as monolithic.
Underlying all the practical drama, is the French colonial history in Algeria. Only mentioned once by a government official, it is also represented by the anachronism of the monastery‘s existence. The difference lies in the official blaming colonialism for the wave of extremism, while the monks are valued and embraced by the villagers.
Towards the end of the film the monks re-enact the Last Supper. Without dialogue, but with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the background, the audience is confronted with powerful images of the monks’ faces as they reflect on their decision to stay on at the monastery in the face of impending doom. You know that this is not about self elevating martyrdom, but about personal faith.
In what could have easily descended into an emotional hi-jacking of the audience, director Xavier Beauvois, has used restraint and understatement to produce a thought provoking exploration of the human condition in all its glory and horror.
On a more oblique note the film reminded me once again of the damage done by mindless violence in so-called blockbuster movies. Violence is not ‘nice‘, it tears communities apart, it destroys and poisons lives. Whole generations have grown up without insight into what does and what does not constitute courage. Crass materialism, self entitlement and instant gratification have taken care of that. The more ‘connected’ our society has become, the more superficial the discourse. It saddens me that a film like this, which shows true (self reflecting) courage would never be held in the same mass/popular esteem as the latest action flick with some muppet flexing his Hollywood pecs.