Based on a true story (as well as a book and a play): In 1794, during the Reign of Terror phase of the French Revolution, Carmelite nuns in the city of Compiègne are threatened by revolutionaries to either renounce their faith or face prosecution.
The opening credits are shown against a caged wall in a cathedral behind which members of the convent live. This is a reminder that we, as viewers, are outsiders of a cloistered convent where only the residents are allowed to set foot. Even when higher members of the Catholic Church want to speak to a Carmelite nun, they can do so only from behind this wall.
From this point, the viewer is taken inside the exclusive area and sees the daily convent life within a beautiful and peaceful setting of cloistered halls, small-sized rooms, and a collective commitment of a dedicated, spiritual life. The beautiful black-and-white cinematography (by André Bac) enhances the experience.
While the greater drama happens in the later half, directors Raymond Léopold Bruckberger and Philippe Agostini still manage to keep the viewer intrigued in the earlier section even with routine activities that are the opposite of dramatic. This is a great setup for the grander drama of events that happen later on. The directors also succeed in creating a beautiful and soulful atmosphere of not only another time and place but with a specific religious mindset which would not exist today even within the same religion.
"Dialogue of the Carmelites" has a dramatic finale that raises the bar for all dramatic finales. Its melding of a well-known period of history with a spiritual community whose faith is strong enough to overcome fear of death is utterly fascinating in its uniqueness. With a fine cast lead by Jeanne Moreau and Alida Valli, this film qualifies as an under-rated gem.
RATING: 9 out of 10
OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Directing by Raymond Léopold Bruckberger and Philippe Agostini