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Of Gods and Men provides faith in filmgoing

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The evocative employment of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake was merely one of the reasons why Black Swan emerged as the best movie of 2010, but director Darren Aronofsky and company were hardly the only filmmakers last year who turned to the 19th-century Russian composer to service their motion picture. Strains from the classic ballet feature prominently in one of the climactic scenes in Of Gods and Men, and its use functions as an emotional release for both the film's anxious protagonists and its equally worried viewers.

Loosely based on a true story, this thoughtful drama centers on a group of French monks who have devoted themselves to living peacefully among a Muslim community in Algeria during the 1990s. But when Islamic terrorists bring violence to the area, these Christians are forced to decide whether to flee to France — and safety — or remain with the needy Muslim villagers and possibly forfeit their own lives. At least two of the men — Christian, the leader (Lambert Wilson), and Luc, the doctor (the great French actor Michael Lonsdale) — believe they must stay, but others aren't so sure.

The early passages could use some tightening, since the bulk of the complexity emerges during the second half. Reminiscent of the 1945 Gregory Peck drama The Keys of the Kingdom, which found a devout man of the cloth struggling with his own human failings while holding steadfast to his faith in a foreign land, this takes it a step further by examining the ease with which different cultures and different religions can peacefully coexist (importantly, the monks never try to convert the villagers) as long as politics, proselytism and power plays are kept out of the picture. Resolutely refusing to be misinterpreted as an anti-Muslim screed (Christian even has a monologue in which he insists on separating the terrorists from the innocent civilians), the movie instead warns against rash judgments, harmful hate mongering and ugly stereotyping — a film ultimately as much about Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as it is about Osama bin Laden and his.

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