[Screen It]

(2001) (Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil) (R)

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Subtitled Drama: As the residents and politicians of a small French island await the arrival of a guillotine so that they can execute a condemned murderer, they begin to know and like the man, eventually growing to think that perhaps he shouldn't be put to death.
It's the mid 19th century on the remote island of Saint-Pierre, a French controlled territory off the coast of Newfoundland. While in a drunken stupor, a simple laborer, Neel Auguste (EMIR KUSTURICA), and his friend, Louis Ollivier (REYNALD BOUCHARD), end up killing a respected captain. While his friend is sentenced to a life of hard manual labor, Auguste is sentenced to die via beheading for being the main culprit.

The only problem is, Saint-Pierre has neither an executioner nor a guillotine, also known as "the widow," a point that the island's Governor (MICHEL DUCHAUSSOY) finds distressing. When Ollivier is killed in a freak accident, Auguste is placed under the watch of Jean (DANIEL AUTEUIL), a French military captain, who's been stationed on the island with his wife, Pauline (JULIETTE BINOCHE), locally known as "Madame La."

Jean and Pauline greatly love, respect and admire each other, so when she asks him to allow the condemned man to help with her garden and build a greenhouse, Jean happily obliges, particularly when he senses that Auguste isn't a natural born killer. This, of course, stirs up controversy among the island's inhabitants and rulers, but Jean sticks by his beliefs and doesn't back down to the demands that the prisoner be kept locked up until the guillotine arrives.

As the months pass, a unique bond develops between Auguste and the married couple, and he soon wins over much of the townsfolk, particularly after making a heroic rescue. Yet, as the guillotine finally begins its seaward trip toward Saint-Pierre, the Governor and his cronies wish to carry out the execution, saying that they're simply following the law. Although they lack an executioner and no one on the island will fill the position, they eventually coerce a new immigrant, Chevassus (GHYSLAIN TREMBLAY), to take the post.

With time seemingly running out for August who's unwillingly to flee and instead seems prepared to pay his penance, Jean, Pauline and others clash with the island's rulers about what will happen to the prisoner once the guillotine finally arrives on Saint-Pierre.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
With all of the controversy over the past several decades regarding capital punishment in the U.S., it shouldn't come to anyone's surprise that the controversial topic has been covered in various movies of both the made for TV and theatrical variety, even if not all of them are set in the present day.

Featuring those who support the death penalty and others who oppose it, along with a prisoner who may or may not deserve to meet their demise at the hands of the government, the stories found within films such as "Dead Man Walking," "True Crime" and "The Green Mile" are filled with palatable conflict, drama, suspense and enough strong and electrified emotions to power several small towns.

The stories obviously usually deal with one convict, who may or may not believe that he or she should die, a judicial system or representative who thinks they should, and some do-gooder who believes that they shouldn't and often has their values and belief system tested or shaken in the process.

Yet, there was a less prisoner-friendly time when executions were not only more commonly accepted, but also often occurred for the public to witness. While being executed via hanging or firing squad would draw the onlookers, there was something about being done in by the guillotine - known as "the widow" in some parts of the world - and few used the apparatus with as much abandon as the French.

Of course, back in those days, there were rarely any last minute calls for clemency from the Governor, or any public defenders who did anything and everything they could to prevent such executions. To do so would be considered heresy and thus run the risk of the offender potentially meeting the same demise as the person they were trying to save.

That's part of the inherent interest of "The Widow of Saint-Pierre," a strongly told tale of just such an effort to prevent a beheading in a small French territory just off Newfoundland. Based on a true story taken from the mid-19th century court records of a small island community, the film is one of those "costume dramas" that initially looks rather staid and stuffy but soon develops into an engaging and thought provoking, dramatic tragedy.

As written by Claude Faraldo ("Flagrant désir," "Themroc") and directed by Patrice Leconte ("Girl on the Bridge," "Ridicule"), the film excels at most every level of filmmaking. From the exquisite technical work that includes terrific costumes, production design and cinematography, to the proficient storytelling and superb performances from the film's three leads, this is the sort of picture that gives art house films a good name.

While the first such element is what viewers will immediately notice and gives the film its terrific visual aura, it's with the latter two that the picture ultimately excels and completely engages the viewer. Despite the somewhat black comedy element of the island convicting a prisoner to death but possessing neither a guillotine nor executioner to carry out the sentence, the story is certainly a dramatic affair.

Leconte smartly has it unfold at a deliberately unhurried pace, thus simultaneously putting the viewer at ease and building the tension as we come to like the prisoner as well, and thus become increasingly anxious as the instrument of his destruction slowly heads his way. The filmmakers also wisely paint the film and its characters in just the proper tone of gray, so that no one is completely right or wrong.

While most viewers will come to like or at least understand the prisoner - brilliantly played by Emir Kusturica (a renowned European director himself who makes his stunning acting debut) - we remember that he truly did kill a man in cold blood. Accordingly, some will understand his dignified and even peaceful acceptance of his fate, while that fact will undoubtedly drive others crazy.

Meanwhile, his two benefactors, superbly played by Juliette Binoche ("Chocolat," "The English Patient") and Daniel Auteuil ("Girl on the Bridge," "Jean de Florette), are breaking the codes of their society and time, thus making them less than perfect, heroic characters who obviously put their own well-being at risk through their actions.

The beauty of their performances is in creating two lovers who appear to be perfectly in tune with one another and seem to realize - consciously or not - how their behavior will ultimately affect them. It's a terrific portrayal of love and sacrifice and it's a great part of what gives the film an incredible amount of depth and emotional resonance.

While the picture won't appeal to everyone's tastes - the subject matter, period setting and subtitles might keep many mainstream viewers away - for those who love and crave well-told tales filled with superb work both in front of and behind the camera, "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" should perfectly fit the bill. We give this engaging and ultimately moving film a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 23, 2001 / Posted April 13, 2001

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