In 1996, in Algeria, eight French monks of The Monastery Notre-Dame de l'Atlas of Tibhirine have a simple life serving the poor community that was raised around the monastery. During the Algerian Civil War, they are threatened by terrorists but they decide to stay in the country and not return to France.Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The actors trained for a month under Francois Polgar, the former assistant director of the Paris Opera choir. This helped them sound more authentic when it came to singing Gregorian and Cistercian chants. Of the actors, only Lambert Wilson had any previous experience of singing, having performed in several one-man shows. See more »
When Luc leans against the painting, his face and left hand touch it noticeably higher in the close-up than during the preceding shot. See more »
Once they were gone, all we had left to do was live. And the first thing we did was - two hours later - we celebrated the Christmas vigil and mass. It's what we had to do. It's what we did. And we sang the mass. We welcomed that child who was born for us absolutely helpless and already so threatened. Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks: The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day, we had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us ...
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I seem to fall between the two camps of critical reaction. The majority who feel this is a classic, great film, or a sizable minority who call the film boring, historically inaccurate, and all surface.
I find myself agreeing with some points made by the critics, e.g., being bothered that the film never really examines how hated the French were for their earlier colonialism. That larger context is part of what makes these Brothers targets. One passing mention is hardly enough to deal with a huge element of the underpinnings of the story.
You could use it to make the Brothers seem even more brave and to more deeply understand that they took a risk to reach out and just be there even before things get 'bad', and/or to make the hatred they faced from the terrorists and the Army not just seem random.
To be clear, that hatred is unforgivable. But understanding how something happened, or why your enemy hates you doesn't equal forgiving terrorism. But is part of the path to peace. And it is something these wise, well read monks would have known about and must have been part of their thoughts and discussions, though its largely avoided here.
I also agree that the film is slow in parts, sometimes needed to establish the rhythm of the monks' lives, but other times getting repetitive with no seeming advantage.
In addition, besides the two main characters, the other monks are largely one-note sketches, and the sudden turn around of those who wanted to leave – maybe the most fascinating action in the film - is largely under explored, Some of the time spent used on repeated rituals or re-tread conversations could have been used to deepen the understanding of those men and their heartrending confusion.
It also bothered me that those who wanted to leave are never given the strong or convincing arguments they easily could have. They're almost made to seem cowardly, or 'wrong'. The film could have gone further in it's compassion towards these men, and understanding that this was a complex decision, even on a theological level. When does God want us to martyr ourselves and when would God rather we not sacrifice the gift of life to find a way to live to fight another day? I can think of a number of third choices between surrender and simply running away. These men must have examined those options, but there is little sign of it here. I have no problem with the film's conclusion, but I wish it had felt both sides presented with equal weight and seriousness, as I assume must have happened among the real monks.
But my biggest problem is that the film's style, while inviting thought, is somewhat emotionally distancing, so while my brain was deeply engaged, my heart was less than I wish it was. I wanted to weep for these men and for the world, but I found myself more caught in mind than in emotions. I believe the story was strong enough to carry both.
Now, all that said, I still think, unlike many of the professional critics that raised these points, that this is a very, very good film, made with intelligence and passion. It is visually simple but stunning to look at. Its slow pace adds to the meditative, un-Hollywood feel that eschews inflating drama for its own sake, and allows us a taste of the peace these men experience by living in their simple, giving way, even in the midst of war. And there are scenes of sheer brilliance, where whole stories are told on peoples' faces with little or no dialogue. Scenes where a combination of photography and acting capture a huge range of complex emotions. We watch fear, joy, transcendence, defeat, and loss run through the hearts of these men within seconds of each other without a word needing to be said, That is film-making of a high order.
Ultimately, this is a film that deserves and needs to be seen. A plea for peace and courage in the face of hatred. But that doesn't mean it isn't a flawed work, or that acknowledging those flaws dismisses those very good things the film does accomplish.
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