This fascinating film has become a surprise hit in France and provoked a range of sometimes odd but generally very positive responses internationally since it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in May. For a film with such an ostensibly religious thematic I found it a remarkably humanist narrative – though ultimately disturbing.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Based on actual events during 1995-6, the story focuses on a community in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria where a group of nine Cistercian-Trappist monks live in close contact with a village that has grown up around the monastery. The monks grow their own food and sell their honey in the market. One of the oldest monks, Brother Luc is a trained physician and runs a clinic for the villagers, some of whom work with the monks and seek their counsel. There is no tension between the monks and the villagers and they are shown celebrating together. But the peace of the region is shattered by the arrival of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) opposed to the Algerian government. The monks are clearly in danger from an organisation which openly kills ‘foreigners’. Should they stay or should they go? The Algerian government and the Army think that they should leave. But the villagers want them to stay and their ‘mission’ is to serve in the monastery. What will they do?
Filmed in Morocco and shot in ‘Scope, the film looks very good (cinematographer Caroline Champetier ) though I did notice a couple of shots which appeared to be still images which the camera panned across. I’m not sure if this was an intentional effect. Director Xavier Beauvois is also credited with ‘adaptation and dialogues’ (screenplay by Etienne Comar) and he has constructed a relatively conventional narrative that not surprisingly draws on the daily rituals of monastery life. I was reminded on several occasions of one of my favourite films, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (UK 1947): the story is very different but the narrative structure has similarities. The difference is that in the British film the nuns are effectively agents of a colonial power, whereas in the Atlas, the villagers see the monks as the basis of the community (not a view shared by the Algerian government) and there is a degree of shared understanding about Islam and Christianity. Nevertheless, the monks have a leader, Brother Christian (beautifully played by Lambert Wilson) and he must play diplomat and leader of a democratic community – not an easy pairing of roles. The other monks must be distinguished in some way by appearance and behaviour and in this respect the film is almost generic. The other star name in the cast, Michael Lonsdale, excels as Brother Luc.
The narrative situation – a group of ‘European’ monks – is replicated in several Hollywood films, e.g. John Ford’s Seven Women in which Chinese missionaries are threatened by a warlord. As I understand it, the Cistercians are less threatening to the ‘host’ community because they do not seek to convert or to proselytise. (Indeed, one monk who describes his boyhood thoughts about becoming a missionary clearly recognises that what he is doing now is rather different.)
One of the real pleasures of the film is the use of music. Mass is sung throughout and the men’s voices meld beautifully. The Press Notes tell us that only Wilson had any prior choral training, but the cast really got into the singing rehearsals and their commitment is evident. There is also a scene in which the monks listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and that has been singled out by many commentators as a high point.
The Cistercians focus on manual work – agriculture in this case – and although Brother Luc is both physician and metaphysicist (Pascal and Montesquieu), other brothers are simpler souls with human doubts and failings. This is what makes the film more powerful for me. We can all recognise the dilemmas which faced these men and I found the understated ending of the film affecting. I can’t begin to think how emotional it may be for French and Algerian audiences.
This extract gives a good sense of the sung mass at Christmas: