Based on the true story of Cistercian monks in Algeria in 1996 (stay with me) this film is the very definition of slow, but there is no other way it could be told. Had I watched it after a long day at work or a particularly stodgy meal (my favourite kind), then odds are I ‘d have drifted off into an unbroken slumber until the next morning at around twenty minutes in, but the elegiac pace, mostly following the monks everyday lives as they become gradually more effected by the increasing terrorist presence as their government deteriorates is beautiful and engrossing.
Long shots of prayer, studying, tending to the garden, cleaning the monastery, more prayer, ploughing the fields, singing hymns and praying again, largely showing little more than the backs of people’s heads doesn’t sound particularly enthralling, and it’s not, but the camera’s obsession with these monk’s defiance and dependency in the face of violence is just gripping, made all the more effective by the sheer lack of action preceding. The best scenes involve nought but dialogue – the monks refusing to allow their doctor and his medicine to be taken from them forcefully, monastery meetings discussing whether desertion is a viable option, or no dialogue whatsoever, with a piece of classical music and a glass of wine reducing the men to tears – and I previously wasn’t aware how fulfilling an experience could be achieved with so little happening on screen.
This won’t appeal to the Friday night crowd after a little bang for their buck, a crowd I’ll admit to joining regularly, but for a thought-provoking watch with plenty of room to think and absorb the atmosphere, you could do a lot worse.
Choose film 8/10