The DVD for this film will be released in the United States this coming July. The film is made in French, with English subtitles. It is based on the true story of a group of French Trappist monks at a monastery in Algeria, whose lives were threatened by Muslim extremists in 1996.
Massacres of civilians took place in Algeria, a former French colony, from 1994 to 1999. Intellectuals, journalists, foreigners and those exhibiting westernized conduct (such as women unveiled) – they were all included as targets in the war between Algeria’s military government and Islamic rebels. The majority of those killed, however, were simply villagers who were perceived as supporters of the hated regime, or as those who refused to join the rebel movement. Some testimony has emerged that the police and the army as well were infiltrated by the rebels, since both exhibited failure to protect citizens or to pursue the murderers and rapists. The possibility of government-instigated attacks has been raised as well, orchestrated to exonerate their own harsh tactics against civilians and to further tarnish the rebels’ reputation. While our press did not single out these events, it was a black time for Algeria and for France as well.
The film is not a violent one, although we witness the deaths of some foreign workers, and feel the danger posed by the rebels to the villagers and to the monks. There are seven monks at the monastery, joined at the film’s end by one more who returns from a journey. The first seven men we get to know slowly, seeing them at their tasks - gardening and harvesting, studying and reading, visiting the Muslim villagers and treating their sick. All these activities surround their religious occupation of prayer and celebrating mass. They sing the mass and the prayers, and this chanting is almost the only music in the film. Their lives are presented as a seamless whole – moving from work and study to the repose of contemplation, swiftly yet without haste donning their habit over their work clothes, ready to worship and to receive their God.
Caught between departing to save their skins and staying to be brutally murdered, the monks differ in how they see their situation and what they believe they ought to do. Acknowledging the risk of staying, their prior states that no outside authority has the right to make their decision for them, even though the government is begging them to leave. What becomes clear is how close they are to the villagers after so many years, and how abandoned the people would feel if the monks left. The monks’ fate is riveting as they wrestle with their decision, each in his own way struggling alone, yet bound with the others in the stillness and immensity of their shared vocation.