Somewhere between the parking lot and the beginning of this film, I was gently escorted from the world of speeding-tickets and insurance policies to a world where simplicity has the power to sustain a life of joy. Set in the Algerian Atlas Mountains in 1995, the film depicts eight Trappist monks living lives of prayer, service and peace. One is almost satisfied to settle into the substantive liturgical (even musical) lives of the monks for two hours when the threat of increasing violence from Muslim extremists invades their tranquil monastery.
Brother Christian, played by Lambert Wilson (The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions), faces the choice of accepting military protection from the corrupt government or risking an attack from the extremist groups. Out of principles of peace and also solidarity with the nearby Muslim community, whom the brothers are called to serve, Br. Christian refuses the military aid.
In the midst of the volatile situation the monks continue to practice their faith, make honey and treat the sick. They continue their work even after the extremists make their first unannounced and unwelcome entry into the monastery seeking, among other things, an audience with the Pope. The extremists leave in what seems to be an uneasy truce.
Shortly after the incursion, the brothers have a decision to make – do they stay and risk further, perhaps deadly, violence or do they leave? The answer is at first dubious as the brothers each voice their opinions on the matter. Most believe it would be a violence to their calling and community to leave, though one, Br. Christophe (played by Oliver Rabourdin) has his doubts.
The question is settled in a moving scene with Br. Christian, the wide-eyed and occasionally comical Br. Amédée (played by Jacques Herlin), and Br. Célestin (played by Philippe Laudenbach). The monks announce to their Muslim friends in the community where they serve that they might be leaving. Br. Célestin delivers the news, “We are like birds on a branch, we don’t know if we’ll leave.” A Muslim woman in the room responds, “We’re the birds, you’re the branch. If you leave, we lose our footing.” The brothers choose to stay.
In the following scenes, Xavier Beauvios, the director, orchestrates a masterful melody of brotherhood, self-sacrifice, and faith with superb performances from the cast, top to bottom.
This film exemplifies, with aching poignancy, the terrible beauty that is so often the life of faith. I am reminded of the famous Latin phrase, "O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem,” which translated means, "O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer." Beauvios captures perfectly the depth, the substance, and the joy of monastic life while posing the essential question of faith to the viewer, “Do you, at the same time, love the world enough to live for it and have courage and faith to die for it?”