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The Guardians **1/2

by Ruben Rosario

The fragile male ego is as daunting an obstacle as any of the other challenges faced by the women of a rural French community living in the shadow of World War I in this impeccably crafted period piece that's quietly absorbing, at least until some soap opera plotting threatens to derail it.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“The Guardians” is a film about the daily grind of farm life. It's about the sweat that trickles down the brow of an aging worker as she plows the field. It's about serene vistas that help take one's mind off faraway bloodshed from which loved ones may not come back. It's a film about wistful glances and emotional exhaustion. But most of all, this rigorous, old-fashioned wartime epic is about stamina and resolve in the face of adversity.

The latest feature from Xavier Beauvois, the director of the Cannes-winning faith-themed drama “Of Gods and Men,” follows the Sandrail household throughout World War I, as family matriarch Hortense (a nearly unrecognizable Nathalie Baye) and her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, Baye's real-life daughter) struggle to upkeep the Paridier farm while her two sons Constant (Nicolas Giraud), a former schoolteacher, and Georges (Cyril Descours) are off fighting “the Krauts,” as the pupils Constant left behind call them.

The film opens with a battlefield strewn with bodies in the opening months of the conflict, but other than this and a dream sequence halfway through, that's all the combat we're shown. Beauvois, here adapting Ernest Pérochon's 1924 novel, is far more interested in the war at home, as Hortense is unable to find an able-bodied male worker to help her in the weeks leading up to the harvest.

Enter shy workhorse Francine Riant (newcomer Iris Bry), a maid who's willing to take on some of the physical labor carried out by men in times of peace. Beauvois, working from the screenplay he collaborated on with Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau, is in no hurry to cut away from the women performing their tasks, and it is here where “The Guardians” thrives. The filmmaker lets the pastoral rhythms of the setting, lensed with a painterly eye by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, dictate the pacing, which is leisurely while never allowing the film from becoming a chore.

Impressed by Francine's work ethic, Hortense decides to keep her on for longer. Time passes, and when Georges, who gives the twinkle in his mother's eyes, returns on a short leave, he can't help but be smitten by the pale-skinned, auburn-haired worker. As the two begin a correspondence, “The Guardians” becomes a more conventional, but no less engrossing costume drama. The (predominantly female) townsfolk convene at Mass to hear the latest casualties from the front lines. Le Paridier slowly enters the 20th century, as new machinery allows the women to perform more labor in a shorter amount of time.

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And Georges continues to court Francine, but the handsome young man, saddled with a sense of entitlement and a chip on his shoulder, can't help but be jealous of the American troops that descend on the farm while they wait for orders. The pent-up resentment leads to a destructive misunderstanding, and while Beauvois, last seen in front of the camera in Claire Denis' “Let the Sunshine In,” handles the moment with relative restraint, this is where he lets story turns that belong in a second-rate soap opera take over the narrative. It's a real shame, since the emphasis on the quotidian aspects of country life the director had so rigorously sustained for an extended amount of screen time take a back seat to romantic woes that take the movie dangerously close to telenovela territory.

The performances go a long way toward making even the film's more shopworn parts easy to take. Baye, known to American audiences as Leonardo DiCaprio's mom in “Catch Me If You Can,” is the epitome of unshakable strength under duress. Bry, who nabbed a Best New Actress nomination at this year's César Awards, emerges as a singularly empathetic audience surrogate. And Descours is our window to the horrors of carnage. The toll of what he's endured is etched on his face, and our hearts go out with him, even when his actions make you want to punch him.

“The Guardians” ends with a bittersweet coda that gives Francine some richly earned empowerment. I just wish Beauvois had opted to sidestep cliché to reach this intriguingly open-ended conclusion, because his portrait of resilience in the face of harrowing loss is infinitely more effective when it's dealing with life's day-to-day challenges than when it's depicting the toxic effects of the fragile male ego.

Photos courtesy of Music Box Films.

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