CANNES, France (Reuters) - The unsolved murder of seven French monks in Algeria during the brutal civil conflict of the 1990s is recounted in "Of Gods and Men," a somber and reflective entry at the Cannes film festival.
The seven members of a Trappist order, who lived in a monastery in Tibehirine south of Algiers, disappeared in 1996 during a savage wave of killings by both Islamist militants and government forces.
Only their severed heads were ever recovered and the exact circumstances in which they died are unclear.
Algerian authorities say the monks were abducted by militants and found dead with their throats cut two months later but that version has been questioned by several sources and France opened an official inquiry into the incident in 2004.
However director Xavier Beauvois takes no side in the controversy, focusing instead on the unhurried rhythms of life in the monastery and ending the film as they disappear with their captors up a snowy mountain path.
As the violence that pervades the country comes closer to their community, the monks are forced to choose whether to stay or leave and Beauvois shows clearly the fears and doubts they experience as they wrestle with their choice.
"In fact what interested me was the story of these men and who they were. Nobody really knows about the rest of it," he told a news conference after the well-received press screening.
"I lean toward the theory of a crime by the army but we don't really know and instead of getting into all that, I preferred to take advantage of the luck we had with the weather and the snow," he said.
The deliberately slow pace of the film sometimes recalls "Le Grand Silence," Philip Groening's almost wordless 2006 treatment of life in a monastery, but Beauvois himself said he was not himself particularly religious.
"Half of my brain doesn't believe anything at all and the other half believes everything," he said.
But he said he had developed great respect for the monks during his preparations, which included a stay in a monastery in France and he was particularly struck by their evident respect for Islam.
"Of Gods and Men" shows the exceptionally close relations between the monks and their Muslim neighbors, who invite the monks into their homes, work with them in the fields and bring their children to the monastery for medical treatment.
"They achieved a very impressive level of closeness and confidence from the fact that they needed each other and the monastery became a place of peace and refuge," said Michael Lonsdale, the actor who plays the monastery doctor.
But despite the slow and contemplative style, made up largely of long, slow shots, Beauvois said he was confident that audiences would understand and accept the film.
"We're in a society where it's advertising and clips all the time. You have to do everything quickly, quickly quickly, there's always this short-termism," he said.
"I've always thought people were intelligent and I don't have any worries. I think people will be quite capable of making a little effort to go toward the film."
Editing by Steve Addison