Melissa Pierson
May 24, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In weaving together the fate of Henri Fortin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a boxer and sometime thief who helps a Jewish family find safety in occupied France, with that of Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s expansive 1862 novel, French director Claude Lelouch has fashioned a movie of truly epic proportions — epic cheese, that is, made even cheesier on the home screen. Clocking in at more than 2 1/2 hours, the movie begins in 1900 and ends in the 1950s, with digressions in-to the 19th century — as well as into unintentional comedy. The characters (Fortin, Jewish intellectuals, cruel Nazis) are mainly caricatures, and while Les Miserables‘ perennially popular tale of suffering and redemption lends itself to puffery (not to mention gaudy musicals), that should be something to resist, not embrace. C

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