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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

The Monuments Men

By
John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service


John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray star in a scene from the movie "The Monuments Men."
Western civilization owes an incalculable debt to the real-life figures behind the fact-based World War II drama "The Monuments Men" (Columbia). Yet, despite honorable intentions and a cast of heavy hitters, this cinematic salute to their memory falls well short of the monumental.

The film's title comes from the nickname of the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. Formed in 1943, this collection of art historians and similar experts was charged with -- among other tasks -- tracing and rescuing the vast store of cultural treasures purloined by the Nazis during their more than four-year-long occupation of most of Europe.

The sleuthing required to achieve this goal was recounted in Robert M. Edsel's eponymous 2009 book, written with Bret Witter and subtitled "Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History." In bringing Edsel's narrative to the screen, George Clooney takes on multiple roles: co-writer (with Grant Heslov), director and star.

In that last capacity, he plays affable Harvard professor Frank Stokes. After convincing President Roosevelt of the need for a unit along the lines of the Monuments Men, World War I veteran Stokes re-enters the service and sets out to assemble his team.

The ensemble lineup thus provided for includes Matt Damon as medievalist James Granger, Bill Murray as architect Richard Campbell and John Goodman as sculptor Walter Garfield. America's allies are represented by Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a British scholar under a cloud of scandal, and Marseilles-based Jewish art dealer Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin).

As these over-the-hill soldiers adjust to life in uniform, and to the perils of the Western Front, their attention focuses on Paris museum curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who witnessed the Teutonic looting firsthand.

James is dispatched to the City of Light to quiz Claire, who has been imprisoned as a collaborator (earlier scenes have vindicated her innocence for the audience). But he finds Claire uncooperative, based on her conviction that the American forces will simply seize the recovered works for themselves and ship them stateside.

The script's comic byplay is amusing enough. Richard and another of the group's number, mousey, bespectacled Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), tease each other relentlessly. And scenes of basic training find Walter walking casually across an obstacle course, blithely unaware that the shots being fired over the heads of the prone soldiers around him are not blanks.

Yet a firm foundation is never laid for the picture's more solemn moments, most of which concern the band's shared fraternal spirit and pride in its mission. These are too casually flagged by way of dialogue, so that the underlying sentiments register as prefabricated.

Besides the story's primary message about the enduring value of art in all its forms, the background of Nazi persecution implicitly drives home the importance of treating all human beings with equal dignity. And a potentially adulterous encounter that comes too late in the action to be described without a spoiler ends in a way viewers of conscience will welcome.

With wartime bloodletting kept to a minimum and vulgar language probably far less in evidence than it was among the ranks in reality, only a surprising number of violations of the Lord's name pose any serious obstacle to recommendation for a wider audience. With its positive themes in mind, accordingly, at least some parents may consider "The Monuments Men" acceptable for mature teens.

The film contains some combat violence with brief gore, about a half-dozen uses of profanity and a few crude and crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

*****
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.





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Junipero Serra: In 1776, when the American Revolution was beginning in the east, another part of the future United States was being born in California. That year a gray-robed Franciscan founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, now famous for its annually returning swallows. San Juan was the seventh of nine missions established under the direction of this indomitable Spaniard. 
<p>Born on Spain’s island of Mallorca, Serra entered the Franciscan Order, taking the name of St. Francis’ childlike companion, Brother Juniper. Until he was 35, he spent most of his time in the classroom—first as a student of theology and then as a professor. He also became famous for his preaching. Suddenly he gave it all up and followed the yearning that had begun years before when he heard about the missionary work of St. Francis Solanus in South America. Junipero’s desire was to convert native peoples in the New World. </p><p>Arriving by ship at Vera Cruz, Mexico, he and a companion walked the 250 miles to Mexico City. On the way Junipero’s left leg became infected by an insect bite and would remain a cross—sometimes life-threatening—for the rest of his life. For 18 years he worked in central Mexico and in the Baja Peninsula. He became president of the missions there. </p><p>Enter politics: the threat of a Russian invasion south from Alaska. Charles III of Spain ordered an expedition to beat Russia to the territory. So the last two <i>conquistadors</i>—one military, one spiritual—began their quest. José de Galvez persuaded Junipero to set out with him for present-day Monterey, California. The first mission founded after the 900-mile journey north was San Diego (1769). That year a shortage of food almost canceled the expedition. Vowing to stay with the local people, Junipero and another friar began a novena in preparation for St. Joseph’s day, March 19, the scheduled day of departure. On that day, the relief ship arrived. </p><p>Other missions followed: Monterey/Carmel (1770); San Antonio and San Gabriel (1771); San Luís Obispo (1772); San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara (1777); San Buenaventura (1782). Twelve more were founded after Serra’s death. </p><p>Junipero made the long trip to Mexico City to settle great differences with the military commander. He arrived at the point of death. The outcome was substantially what Junipero sought: the famous “Regulation” protecting the Indians and the missions. It was the basis for the first significant legislation in California, a “Bill of Rights” for Native Americans. </p><p>Because the Native Americans were living a nonhuman life from the Spanish point of view, the friars were made their legal guardians. The Native Americans were kept at the mission after Baptism lest they be corrupted in their former haunts—a move that has brought cries of “injustice” from some moderns. </p><p>Junipero’s missionary life was a long battle with cold and hunger, with unsympathetic military commanders and even with danger of death from non-Christian native peoples. Through it all his unquenchable zeal was fed by prayer each night, often from midnight till dawn. He baptized over 6,000 people and confirmed 5,000. His travels would have circled the globe. He brought the Native Americans not only the gift of faith but also a decent standard of living. He won their love, as witnessed especially by their grief at his death. He is buried at Mission San Carlo Borromeo, Carmel, and was beatified in 1988. Pope Francis canonized him in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2015.</p> American Catholic Blog Hope and faith can outshine the darkness of evil. However dense the darkness may appear, our hope for the triumph of the light is stronger still. Though violence continues to stain us with blood, the shadows of death can be dissipated with one act of light.

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