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The Monuments Men

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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John of Monte Corvino: At a time when the Church was heavily embroiled in nationalistic rivalries within Europe, it was also reaching across Asia to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Mongols. John of Monte Corvino went to China about the same time Marco Polo was returning. 
<p>John was a soldier, judge and doctor before he became a friar. Prior to going to Tabriz, Persia (present-day Iran), in 1278, he was well known for his preaching and teaching. In 1291 he left Tabriz as a legate of Pope Nicholas IV to the court of Kublai Khan. An Italian merchant, a Dominican friar and John traveled to western India where the Dominican died. When John and the Italian merchant arrived in China in 1294, Kublai Khan had recently died. </p><p>Nestorian Christians, successors to the dissidents of the fifth-century Council of Ephesus’ teaching on Jesus Christ, had been in China since the seventh century. John converted some of them and also some of the Chinese, including Prince George from Tenduk, northwest of Beijing. Prince George named his son after this holy friar. </p><p>John established his headquarters in Khanbalik (now Beijing), where he built two churches; his was the first resident Catholic mission in the country. By 1304 he had translated the Psalms and the New Testament into the Tatar language. </p><p>Responding to two letters from John, Pope Clement V named John Archbishop of Khanbalik in 1307 and consecrated seven friars as bishops of neighboring dioceses. One of the seven never left Europe. Three others died along the way to China; the remaining three bishops and the friars who accompanied them arrived there in 1308. </p><p>When John died in 1328, he was mourned by Christians and non-Christians. His tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage. In 1368, Christianity was banished from China when the Mongols were expelled and the Ming dynasty began. John’s cause has been introduced in Rome.</p> American Catholic Blog We look ahead to the coming of the Son of Man, standing erect and with heads held high. We live in hope, not in fear. Our experience of God is no longer limited by human weakness or even human sinfulness. God has always been one step ahead of us, with a plan that exceeds our greatest desires.

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