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Of Gods and Men (2010)


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Greg Wolfe just emailed me with this link to a story about Cannes entry that should be worth a look when it's available:
 

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 sombre 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, focussing 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.


Hmmm. Would people have been more likely to sit through Into Great Silence to the end if they'd known that the monks would be captured and taken away?

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FWIW, [url=http://twitter.com/gemko/status/14231951185]Mike D'Angelo[/url]:

[indent]Of Gods & Men (Beauvois): 53. About as good as portraits of stalwart nobility and courage get. Which is to say, not very.[/indent]
[url=http://theplaylistnation.blogspot.com/2010/05/xavier-beauvois-of-gods-and-men-is.html]Kevin Jagernauth[/url] @ The Playlist gives a mixed review in the B- range.

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[url=http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2010/05/cannes-film-festival-2010-day-seven/]Matt Noller[/url] @ The House Next Door:

[indent]The true story of seven French monks in Northern Africa who in 1996 were kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists, Xavier Beauvois's in-competition Of Gods and Men is, no more and no less, a handsomely mounted French prestige picture. Never less than perfectly competent, it's still somber and respectful to a fault: the Cannes equivalent of Oscar bait.

Beauvois models his film's rhythm on the monastic life, and a few moments in the monastery toward the beginning of the film have a similar meditative rhythm as Philip Gröning's marvelous Into Great Silence. But that comparison soon falls apart, as Beauvois is less interested in humanizing the monks (played by an experienced cast of French actors that includes Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale) than in sanctifying them. . . .[/indent]
[url=http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117942804.html]Jordan Mintzer[/url] @ [i]Variety[/i]:

[indent]Faith in the resonant powers of filmmaking is what drives Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men." Based on an actual incident in which seven French monks were allegedly executed by Islamists during the Algerian Civil War, the pic eschews the hostage-crisis scenario to concentrate on the weeks leading up to their deaths, transforming what could have been an ordinary docudrama into a transfixing meditation on religious conviction, post-colonial strife and the force of actors who elevate every gesture to a loftier domain. This consummate work by the "Le petit lieutenant" helmer will convert serious moviegoers to its cause. . . .

Although press notes indicate the English-language title as "Of Gods and Men," the subtitles on the print read "Of Men and Gods."[/indent]

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[url=http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/1875]Mubi[/url] has rounded up some more reviews, and has a clip:

[media]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tsnPmmVYx4&feature=player_embedded[/media]

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And the movie goes to [url="http://www.deadline.com/2010/05/cannes-sony-pictures-classics-acquires-of-gods-and-men/"]Sony Pictures Classics[/url].

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[url="http://www.altfg.com/blog/movie/of-gods-and-men-ecumenical-prize-cannes/"]Winner of the Ecumenical Award at the Cannes Film Festival.[/url]

And I didn't realize until now that the film stars [b]The Merovingian[/b]. (Didn't recognize him in the preview or his name.)

[img]http://hunternuttall.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/merovingian-deductive-reasoning.jpg[/img] Edited by Overstreet

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[url="http://www.cargo-film.de/festival/tiff/"]Michael Sicinski:[/url]

[quote]By contrast, Xavier Beauvois’s deeply humanistic and highly intelligent OF GODS AND MEN truly captures «the essential», and it has a great deal more to tell us about our present conflicts between Christendom and the Islamic world. OF GODS AND MEN is a classically constructed film, organized according to familiar narrative beats (the cute old monk, the man with the crisis of faith, the «good thief», etc), and for this reason it could be called middlebrow. But it actually withholds many conventional signposts that signal audience response, instead providing a patient examination of the daily circumstances of people of faith, and asking us to evaluate those circumstances and the choices we would take were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. The film presents the true story of eight monks living in the Atlas Monastery in Algeria who were murdered in 1996. The brothers lived in harmony with their Muslim community; they provided free health care, sold honey at the local market and were often honored guests and family celebrations. Beauvois presents a picture of two faiths living side by side in total mutual respect. However, this isn’t a rosy, pie-in-the-sky ecumenical vision. What he demonstrates is that the community shares a mutual distrust of their government, the army, the Muslim extremists, and the French colonizers of the past. That is, their bond has been sealed not through ideology but through laboring side by side, as well as each group studying the tenets of the others’ faith. That is, Beauvois shows that true religious belief requires effort, not ignorant sloganeering. And so, when the Islamist fundamentalists finally arrive in the end, OF GODS AND MEN has already built a nearly airtight argument that, regardless of what these men with guns might believe, they do not represent Islam. They are not men of God. Particularly when writing for Cargo, I try not to be USA-centric, but it is difficult to watch a film like Beauvois’s and clear my mind of the fact that, back home, bigots are burning Korans in order to protest the construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, which right-wing extremists have dubbed «the ground zero mosque». I hope that everyone in the U.S. has the chance to see this film.[/quote]

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[url=http://1morefilmblog.com/wordpress/of-gods-and-men-beauvois-2010/]kenmorefield[/url]:

[indent]Like many of the best films about people of faith, the film doesn’t celebratize the characters because of what happens to them. It celebrates their faith because of what it empowers them to do rather than celebrating them for what they did for the faith. . . .[/indent]

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[url=http://vjmorton.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/tiff-10-capsules-day-9/]vjmorton[/url] calls it one of the two best films at TIFF, along with [i]Black Swan[/i]:

[indent]Contrary to appearances, I’m not just putting out for the Catholic film about holy martyrs, for a film about an Islamist terrorist attack on an Algerian monastery of Cistercian monks. I actually had some serious reservations going in about OF GODS AND MEN and several ideas about where it could go wrong — as an easy ecumenical homily or as a liberation theology wankfest. ([url=http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/of-gods-and-men/5037]The review at Slant[/url] perfectly describes a film I would dislike.) And I do think the film a little too eager at the start to burnish its ecumenist street cred. For example, it is hard to believe Brother Christian (the monastery’s head played by Lambert Wilson) would have no idea where the Islamist terrorists had come from, as he says. It was a reaction to the Algerian army’s nullifying an election the Islamist political party was poised to win, with the stated intention of imposing Sharia law and dissolving democracy as un-Islamic.

But neither of these things happen for a couple of reasons — one is that the film is as liturgically structured and as theologically engaged as the monks’ lives. It’s not as rigorous on that front as INTO GREAT SILENCE (how could it be), but there’s more than enough of it to make clear that these are men of serious religious conviction, not social workers, in Mother Teresa’s famous formulation. The prayer meetings, masses and readings often turn out relevant, and the theology is not scrimped on. . . .[/indent]

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[url="http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/2344"]Glenn Kenny:[/url]

[quote][color="#323232"][font="Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, sans-serif"]Several of the residents go into some detail on how the monks made their current, relatively placid (up until now) lives possible. When the metaphor of birds perched on a branch is bandied about, a woman of the village corrects one of the monks: you are not the birds on the branch, she says to him; you [i]are[/i] the branch. The film is finally about how these men come to accept that state. There's no Bressonian moment of grace; nor is there any road-to-Damascus blinding light moment of the sort one might associate with a biblical epic by DeMille or Stevens. Instead, there is a gradual solidifying, a taking-root, accompanied by incidental pleasures, sorrows, and ironies. As when Lonsdale's Luc recalls Pascal's observation that evil is never more cheerfully accomplished as when it's done in the name of religious conviction. "Unctuous paternalism" aside, the good that the characters in this film do is both thoroughly tied in with religious conviction yet somehow stands apart from it.[/font][/color][/quote]

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Will be shown at Whitehead Film Festival at Claremont School of Theology in Jan.

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[quote name='Peter T Chattaway' date='14 September 2010 - 02:35 PM' timestamp='1284485741' post='231361']
[url="http://1morefilmblog.com/wordpress/of-gods-and-men-beauvois-2010/"]kenmorefield[/url]:

[indent]Like many of the best films about people of faith, the film doesn’t celebratize the characters because of what happens to them. It celebrates their faith because of what it empowers them to do rather than celebrating them for what they did for the faith. . . .[/indent]
[/quote]

Thanks for the shout out, Peter.

Cindy and I also briefly discuss this film (and John Sayles's [i]Amigo[/i]) in Part II of our post-TIFF [url="http://1morefilmblog.com/wordpress/amigo-1more-podcast-episode-7a/"]podcast[/url] discussing which films have grown in our estimation since the festival and which films we have cooled towards.

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Saw it this evening at the VIFF. It's easily the highlight of the festival for me. It's a film that makes you want to close your eyes and pray along with certain scenes, because you sense that by doing so you'll actually "see" the film better. Can't say I've ever been compelled by any movie quite like that before. More later, probably.

Also got to meet and hang out with Peter for a bit, which was fun. :)

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'Twas fun, indeed. :)

I liked it a lot, too, and I can understand why critics of a less-religious bent might not care for it all that much. It really does focus on the life of prayer and worship and how it makes these men who they are and how it prepares them for what comes down the road. Christian, the leader of the group, does have a speech or two that might seem like something out of a hagiography, but there are moments when he says or does something rather bold, and you can sense the fear percolating beneath his bravery -- so the character does come across as very human, to me, even if, yes, he is in some ways an idealized sort of human.

Incidentally, I was wondering beforehand why the movie was called "Of Gods, plural, and Men", but the film begins with a quote from Psalm 82 that sets everything up. I believe the film quotes verses 6 and 7 only, but I think it's worth quoting the Psalm in full here (the NIV is quoted below; I do not recall precisely how this passage is translated in the movie's English subtitles):

[indent] 1 God presides in the great assembly;
he gives judgment among the "gods":

2 "How long will you [a] defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
Selah

3 Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless;
maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.

4 Rescue the weak and needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

5 "They know nothing, they understand nothing.
They walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

6 "I said, 'You are "gods";
you are all sons of the Most High.'

7 But you will die like mere men;
you will fall like every other ruler."

8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance.[/indent]
Now, it seems to me that the "gods" referred to in verse 6 are the kings of the various nations -- kings who are now subject to God's judgment, as per verse 1. Thus, it also seems to me that "sons of the Most High" is intended here as a reference to those kings as well; in the ancient world, a king was typically described as the "son" of the local deity, etc. (Psalm 2:6-7 is relevant here; that psalm is generally thought to have been part of a coronation ceremony originally, so the "king" and "son" of God referred to there would have been David or Abijah or Jehoshaphat or whoever, but of course the psalm went on to be interpreted as a prophetic foretelling of the coming of Jesus.)

So the basic thrust of the passage, in its original context, is that kings (i.e. "gods", "sons of the Most High") will be reduced to "mere men".

This passage, incidentally, is quoted by Jesus himself in John's gospel, chapter 10:

[indent] 33"We are not stoning you for any of these," replied the Jews, "but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God."

34Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'[e]? 35If he called them 'gods,' to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken— 36what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, 'I am God's Son'? 37Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. 38But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." 39Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.[/indent]
Anyway. The interesting thing about [i]Of Gods and Men[/i] -- given how it portrays the relationship between the Catholic monks and their Muslim neighbours -- is that it basically broadens the meaning of this passage so that ALL people are God's children, ALL people are "sons of the Most High" in some sense. And yet there is still an element of humility that comes through in that reference to "mere men".

And that humility becomes especially pronounced in one of the film's closing voice-overs, which puts an interesting twist on the concept of martyrdom. It is common, when discussing films about martyrs, to say that these martyrs have become "Christ-figures". (Case in point: Dreyer's [i]The Passion of Joan of Arc[/i] -- which, incidentally, I was reminded of during a late scene in [i]Of Gods and Men[/i] that makes heavy use of close-ups.) But the voice-over in question draws a parallel between these martyrs-to-be and the repentant thief, instead. Very interesting.

More later, perhaps, when I've had a chance to think and read about the film some more.

Oh, and I also liked a point that Nathan made about the closing shot, but I won't steal his thunder on that. :)

(Footnote: I believe the opening titles say that the psalm being quoted there is Psalm 81, not 82. But I believe the opening titles are using the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psalms#Numbering]Greek numbering[/url] of the Psalms that is followed by the Orthodox and by at least some Catholics, and not the Hebrew numbering that is followed by Protestants.)

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Apparently this film was originally rated R, but it has now been [url=http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/mpaa-ratings-jan-12-2011-70962]re-rated PG-13[/url] "for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language."

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What a marvelous film! Almost impossible to pick a most powerful scene: Chanting a hymn at the threatening helicopter? The Last Supper? Or even some of the days of ordinary life? The shot of the empty table during Christian's VO? Or best lines: "I cannot leave myself"? You have already given your life when you followed Christ"? Luc's defiant "Be gentle. That medicine is for the children, not for you"?

PTC cited a review about that said the subtitle in a print had the title as "Of Men and Gods". The print I saw had "Of Gods and Men", but the French Title translates "Of Men and Gods". I wonder if the change is just something that seems to flow better in English. Does the order matter? Would we approach "Of Men and Gods" differently than we approach "Of Gods and Men"?

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That's funny Darrel, the moments you seemed to pick as the best were the moments that I thought stopped the film from being a truly great film. It is still great, but found it to be a little weak cinematographically. This was particularly the case in the scenes in which the director was trying too hard to drive home the emotional impact of the events - the helicopter & last supper scenes really stood out as filmically weak. I got somewhat frustrated by the inability to keep the camera still, or the tendency to move it too quickly. He was a little obsessed with panning, a lot of which was unnecessary, and some of the cuts in the last supper scene made absolutely no sense other than to prolong the action. They made me wonder about the filming decisions for this scene, whether they were motivated by the actors - there seems to be a need here to show them all crying - and as such not enough covering footage had been planned and filmed.

Anyway, other than that, this was an excellent film and very very moving. It was refreshing to see a film that privileged prayer so much in its narrative, and in a way that actually motivated the action - or rather the decision making, because there is little 'action'. And what a decision - to not let violence bully or intimidate you into changing the principles by which you live.

I had a few favourite moments - one of the opening scenes between the doc and the little girl, his gentle kiss on her wounded forehead, the look to the mother and knowing that her silent waiting meant there was something else, the shot of her scuttling out of the monastery with her new blue trainers. The 'argument' when washing up. The garden discussion between Christophe and Christian in which the tension and anxiety is finally broached and superceded through kind words, faith, and a loving touch. The second vote at the table at which they all express their desire to stay in the most simple terms. The look of distress on Amédée's face as he wanders looking for his stolen community brings tears to my eyes just thinking of it.

But most of all, that final voiceover, in which Christian very much repositions their story as nothing special, allying their fate with that of all victims of senseless violence. As Peter said, there is a distinct effort to avoid martyrisation here. It is discussed often, 'martyrs for martyrs sake', but the film builds such a strong and real sense of how faith is their foundation that it is impossible to see their decision to stay as anything other than an expression of their identity. Leaving, as one of the monks says, doesn't make any sense. In this the film itself is very responsible, it avoids the trappings of the superficial journalism that they discuss, and by refusing to paint them as 'naive' but fully choosing to live in the fear, tension, and uncertainty of their decision, it is successful in making the monks a point of identification for all victims of violence. That the film achieves this is really quite commendable.

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Some garbled thoughts:

As a Simone Weil fan, it was fascinating for me to see how a number of her central preoccupations were played out in the story, especially in Christophe's dilemma, and in Christian's the final letter (was it a letter?). In one place, Weil writes in the margin of a notebook:

'Value of suffering –
I believe in the value of suffering, so long as one makes every [legitimate] effort to escape it.’

And this seemed to be a central question for the monks, how to desire life, when making a decision that could lead to death? There is this suspicion towards 'vainglory' in their conversations - they know all too well that a desire for spiritual heroism can creep in, but find themselves thrust into a potentially heroic posture without asking for it. In the essay that was being read one meal time, there was a passage about weakness not being a virtue in itself, and Christophe exclaims at one point that he became a monk to [i]live[/i], not die. For me, this was the really powerful thing about the film - it shows people coming to terms with the fact that their own very simple, undramatic convictions may lead them to extremes. I loved the [i]awkwardness[/i] of Christian's confrontation with the militants at the start - the courage is so embarassingly human and impure (he doesn't quite know whether to shake the guy's hand, and then doesn't know whether he should have). Know I think about it, it feels like not many films manage to portray courage as something you can only display when actually [i]scared[/i].

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[url=http://artsandfaith.com/index.php?showtopic=25695&findpost=240765]Link[/url] to a post in our thread on the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year's Oscars, which touches on the controversy over the fact that [i]Of Gods and Men[/i] was snubbed but an Algerian film that apparently takes a hostile view of the French was not. Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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John Allen, at the National Catholic Reporter, mentions this movie in a larger essay asking, [url=http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/why-christianity-lacks-holocaust-literature]"[size="2"]Why does Christianity lack a Holocaust literature?"[/url]

Some of the insights in that article may shed light on why it didn't receive an Oscar nomination.

I haven't seen [i]Of Gods and Men[/i] yet (I'm not sure if it even has an R1 DVD release yet), but I look forward to seeing it when I can.[/size] Edited by David Smedberg

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[url="http://www.npr.org/2011/02/22/133278072/lambert-wilson-of-gods-and-men-and-james-bond"]Lambert Wilson on Fresh Air talking about OG&M[/url]

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[url=http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2011/02/monks-music.html]Richard Brody[/url] @ [i]New Yorker[/i]:

[indent]The film’s multiple perspectives emerge in an extraordinarily powerful scene that Anthony rightly singles out. It occurs near the end of the film, when the monks are living under the imminent threat of attack, and one of them, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale),

[indent]opens two bottles of wine, at dinner, and, in place of the customary spiritual readings, puts on a recording of “Swan Lake.”[/indent]
Anthony notes that the scene shows the monks “saying farewell to worldly things, drinking deep of passing joys.” There’s also something else on view there, something stranger and more daring: in effect, these men of the spirit are affirming that the culture they’re ready and willing to die for is not just that of Christian spirituality—it’s also the insubordinate, audacious, personal, and erotic treasures of Western art, and the freedom to drink a glass of wine. The monks don’t just salute the worldly in the abstract sense—they affirm that the faith that underlies their faith is that of secular European ideals of individual liberty and self-expression.

And yet, as the monks are marched off to their fate, Beauvois seems to present their readiness for sacrifice with not a thought of vengeance as more than a monastic meekness—indeed, as a sort of expiatory rite or symbolic purging of the sins and crimes of colonialism.[/indent]
[url=http://movies.msn.com/movies/movie-critic-reviews/of-gods-and-men-%28des-hommes-et-des-dieux%29/]Glenn Kenny[/url] @ MSN Movies:

[indent]Once the trouble starts coming, the monks understand pretty quickly that it's should-we-stay-or-should-we-go time, and some of them are pretty definite on the go side. "I didn't become a monk to become a martyr," one of their number states, and the sentiment seems inarguable. But the line also reminds us that there were times and places when and where practicing Christianity was inviting martyrdom. We're told that Islamic fundamentalists enthusiastically embrace martyrdom. Is it an intrinsic feature of certain faiths' "reformations" that such notions are eventually put by the wayside? What's the circumstance by which the notion of martyrdom has become associated with a particular brand of barbarity? These questions do not get explicitly asked in the film, but they're certainly insinuated, as is the big question of what the proper place and function of faith is in the modern or post-modern world. . . .[/indent]
Meanwhile, the film just won three [url=http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118032927?refcatid=13]Cesar awards[/url], for Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor (Michael Lonsdale).

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Sorry but Brody's point is, to put it in the most charitable way possible -- ahistoric, ignorant and self-satisfied tosh.

The claim that Western secularism underlies the Church can be believed by nobody with any knowledge of history before his own lifetime. If nothing else, the Church came before Western secularism, not the other way around (and no, Greece and Rome were not secular in any sense Brody would acknowledge if they existed today). Rather, it was Christianity (St. Augustine in particular) that developed both the notion of secularity and church-state separation. The Church was always a patron of the arts, long before the salons gave a structure to create secular art. The Church never pushed tee-totalism (the Lord turned water into wine, not vice versa, and the Precious Blood never took the worldly appearance if grape juice).

When I say film critics are mostly ignorant of the Church -- Brody's presentist rubbish is exactly what I mean.

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What Victor said. Exactly. Christendom created the secular sphere, not the other way around.

[quote name='Peter T Chattaway' date='11 October 2010 - 05:50 AM' timestamp='1286790610' post='232792']I liked it a lot, too, and I can understand why critics of a less-religious bent might not care for it all that much.[/quote]
"I liked it a lot, too, and I can understand why narrow, narcissistic critics of a less-religious bent who are only interested in movies that tell them about worlds and people like themselves might not care for it all that much."

There. Fixed it for you.

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Go SDG! Now talk some sense into these demonstrators.........


[img]http://artsandfaith.com/public/style_emoticons/default/demonstration.gif[/img]

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