Via the opening slow pans and absence of dialogue you are already being drawn into a quieter and calmer pace of life. By deft editing, the Director-Xavier Beauvois creates a monastic timescale and atmosphere around you. Slowly you calm down and become one with them, up in the mountains of Algeria.
Based on a true story, its set in the mid-1990's as the Algerian Civil War is about to explode. The French Cistercian monks carry on living peaceably next door to the local village. They support the villagers, by providing free medicine, treatment and counselling. Indeed their lives as monks are carefully woven into the fabric of the villagers. As word starts coming through of atrocities in the area committed by Islamic extremists, the monks have to decide whether they are to stay or go. Initially they are divided, but stay nevertheless because a consensus has not yet been reached. We then see each monk go through all forms of self-questioning and doubt, even a crisis of faith. Lead by their Abbot Christian, played with beautiful understatement by Lambert Wilson, they gradually all decide they have no option but to stay, whatever the outcome may be.
The film has a number of major moments that are decisive. The most crucial and moving takes place before the evening the terrorists turn up. They are sat around their dining table, the monk who is a trained Doctor comes in with two bottles of red wine, and puts a tape on of Swan Lake. As the music plays, the camera moves around the table from face to face. We first read the pleasure and uplift in their faces. Followed by a strong sense of the real love for each other, and the sense of common purpose and brotherhood that has grown up between them. It concludes with a sense of their hearts being visibly broken, as they know they are about to lose everything they value, their life, their practice and their friendship. It gave me a real feeling of their spiritual fellowship, which we'd call Sangha.
The film ends as it began with a final long shot without dialogue, as the abducted monks and their captors stumbling through the snow and fog until they gradually become indistinguishable and disappear into the distance.