Crime and punishment

Mercy transforms condemned and community alike.

PATRICE LECONTE'S SAGE Widow of Saint-Pierre might also have been called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Guillotine—if it weren't such a serious French film. The ragged fingers of a simpleton awaiting a date with a rusty blade pry at the chiaroscuro edges of this factually inspired moral tale about a man's unlikely rise to heroism despite his heinous killing of a fellow colonist.


directed by Patrice Leconte with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, and Emir Kusturica opens March 16 at Harvard Exit

After a heavy drinking session in the local bar, fisherman Neel and a friend wander into the darkened streets of their isolated French outpost off the cost of Newfoundland, circa 1850. They brutally murder a man in a booze-fueled row, later telling a court they did it simply to learn whether he was "big or fat."

Portrayed by Bosnian-born director Emir Kusturica (Underground), Neel is sentenced to die by the guillotine, or "widow" in French argot. Since the village has never had a death row felon before, Saint-Pierre must then order a guillotine and wait for it to arrive by ship. While the days turn into months, the local military garrison's captain (Queen Margot's Daniel Auteuil) and his forward-thinking wife (Chocolat's Juliette Binoche) become Neel's jailers and champions, allowing him luxuries of freedom that raise the suspicions of municipal authorities.

Dead Man Walking it's not. Though the bitterly humanist Widow is soundly anti-capital punishment, it's not a terribly deep picture in other respects. Best known for Girl on the Bridge and Monsieur Hire, Leconte here gives us a full, meaty stew of superb acting and intense detail (and even a laugh here and there), but rarely allows a startling or spontaneous moment.

Throughout, Leconte juxtaposes images of stark, icy Canadian cliffs with bright cornflower skies, echoing the paradox between an unrelenting penal code and the generous instincts of a loving marriage. Yet finally Widow loses itself to fence-straddling, never producing a convincing portrait of either the town bureaucracy or the pro-Neel citizenry—both of which are guilty of extremely stupid judgments (like Neel himself).

In his acting debut, Kusturica is endearing as the convict who pulls the conflicted townspeople into his doomed life by screwing their widows and being the perfect Mr. Fixit. His weighty, loping gait contrasts with the vivacious liberalism of Binoche's Bambi-eyed character, whose noble, adoring husband refuses to ruin her charitable passion with jealousy. But all their steamy romanticism—a welcome spark in the grim 1800s—is undermined by Widow's disappointing climax, which, although it sidesteps clich鬠is as imperfect and exacting as the machine destined to end Neel's bleak life.

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