A group of French Monks have been doing good works, God’s work they would say, for some time in Algeria. But the political situation is deteriorating, and they find themselves caught between the government’s military, and the mujahedeen rebels pledged to overthrow the government. With the monks are the people of a small village who have come to rely on the monastery. The monastery is self-sufficient, raising sheep and their own vegetables. They also have a doctor who treats the sick of the village. In fact, he’ll treat anyone who needs his help, government troops as well as the rebels. This is where their problem lies: both sides accuse them of favoring, if not collaborating with the enemy. The monks, they just want to take care of their flock.
Both sides visit the monastery, both give the monks menacing looks. The monks know they have probably overstayed their welcome and live in fear for their lives. Some want to leave, some want to stay. They take a series of votes, and the last one is unanimous: they’ll stay, come what may. They’re not after being martyred, but they can’t just abandon the village and its people.
There are some brutal scenes here when the muslims massacre some foreign workers. But mostly there are scenes of great beauty, as when the closing scene has the monks and their captors trudging off through the snow and mist. Earlier there is a very powerful scene with the monks chanting in the Gregorian style while a helicopter gunship hovers over their monastery. Watching it, I kept expecting a missile to be fired into the monastery. Very tense.
There’s a lot of chanting and singing and it depends on your tastes if this is a good or a bad thing. This is a quiet and unusual film, that gives us a glimpse into the monastic life – monastic life under extreme conditions.
Blaise Pascal has said that “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” The film takes this as its central philosophy.