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Despite lofty ambitions, 'Gods and Men' falls flat

Despite lofty ambitions, 'Gods and Men' falls flat

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Of Gods and Men
Olivier Rabourdin in "Of Gods and Men" (Sony Pictures Classics)

Forgive me, Father, for I was bored.

In Sunday school, I learned to respect monks, who renounce worldly possessions for a cloistered life of reading books and baking bread. And in film school, I learned to respect the Cannes Film Festival, which anointed the French drama "Of Gods and Men" with its grand prize.

Yet I confess that I was unmoved by this beautifully austere and humane movie about monks who hold their ground during an Islamist uprising in Algeria in 1995.

The twist of this true story is that the monks do charitable outreach in the Muslim community and are led by a priest who is a scholar of the Quran. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) presides over a Trappist monastery 60 miles south of Algiers, near a village where the eight monks tend to the sick and where armed rebels are encroaching.

Although Christian is a quiet peacemaker and Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is a loving medic, the rest of the aging monks are almost indistinguishable from each other. So when bureaucrats in the former French colony urge the monks to flee the rebels, writer and director Xavier Beauvois can't season the supper-table vote with enough dramatic flavor.

We don't know who these pious men are and, because the villagers and rebels are equally sketchy, we don't know how anyone benefits from the outcome.

Only in the film's penultimate scene, as the rebels approach the monastery and the monks break out the red wine and a cassette of "Swan Lake," does it deviate from its contemplative tone. Then it's back to a voice-over homily about peace on earth.

"Of Gods and Men" is a movie of sweeping vistas, sonorous chants and solemn faces gazing upward to heaven. But a conscientious critic can't just genuflect to the lofty ideals that the characters represent without noticing that the film they inhabit is flat.

What "Of Gods and Men" • Two and a half stars (out of four) • Rating PG-13 • Run time 2:02 • Content War images and violence • Language French with English subtitles • Where Plaza Frontenac

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