I had heard a lot about this film from Cannes given that it won Grand Prix honors. That isn’t always a perfect recommendation, so I approached this film with a bit of trepidation, spurred on by the trailers I’d been seeing. As it turns out, this is a beautifully filmed and subtle presentation; it actually made me wonder what Merchant Ivory could have done if they’d gone to Algeria.
Most importantly, the story manages to pull off the near impossible. I’d say, “miraculous,” but then I’d blow the comment. We get to know the monks, villagers, and even the rebels and the government players as people. By the time the conflict plays out, you do not see the monks as either noble nor as foolish, they are just honest in their belief.
How this is managed is really a great bit of directing and writing. A large portion of the film is dedicated to not only watching the monks pray, but hearing (or reading) the text of their prayers, which are all rather topical to their situation. Given that they are picking those chants and prayers specifically, that isn’t surprising, but the total effect of observation and watching their interactions with the world brings you into their mindset without the need for beaten breasts or religious diatribes. Gorgeously subtle. And, since this is based on real events, it is even more impressive as the film rises above mere chronicle or exploitation and simply becomes human.
Despite the fact that I’ve rated this rather highly, I have to admit that I don’t see myself coming back to watch the film again. Not because it isn’t expertly done, but because having experienced it now, I don’t think I’ll feel the drive to do so again. However, I didn’t want it to get lost for others and so bumped it up my scale. It really is worth seeing at least once.