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A powerful indictment of executions

MOVIES: The Widow of St. Pierre, directed by Patrice Leconte, starring Juliette Binoche, Emir Kusturica and Daniel Auteuil.

Review by BRIAN CHIDESTER | June 8, 2001 | Page 11

THE WIDOW of St. Pierre is a brilliant condemnation of the death penalty--and those who use it to hold onto their power.

The film is set in the French territory of St. Pierre, off the eastern coast of Canada, in the years 1849 to 1851.

In 1848, workers in Paris rose up, overthrowing France's King Louis-Philippe in the first in a series of revolutions that spread across Europe. These upheavals terrified the propertied classes--and put flesh to the "specter of communism" that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote about in The Communist Manifesto, published that same year.

Within months, France's rulers had put down the revolution. But they didn't quite have the strength to reimpose the monarchy--Napoleon's nephew Louis Bonaparte became ruler of the so-called "Second Empire" in France.

Against this backdrop, we meet Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica), a poor fisherman from St. Pierre who is sentenced to death for a murder committed during a drunken prank.

The territorial government has one problem. It has no guillotine and no executioner. The guillotine can be sent from abroad, but executioners are such social outcasts that ship captains won't even let them aboard.

While St. Pierre's ruling clique struggles with these problems, Neel is put under arrest--to be watched over by the Captain (Daniel Auteuil), an exiled military man with an apparently radical background. The Captain's wife, Madame La (Juliette Binoche), also takes an interest in Neel, convinced that even people who've done bad things can be good.

Neel gradually wins the love and respect of the dirt-poor fishing community of St. Pierre--of everyone, of course, except the governor and his bureaucrats. From the beginning, it's clear that they don't care whether Neel lives or dies. They need to carry out the execution to preserve their reign.

Their contempt grows throughout the film--first at Madame La's public association with Neel, and then at the Captain's refusal to "control his wife" and to keep "the prisoner" locked up.

Although it might seem like a period piece, The Widow of St. Pierre raises very contemporary issues. It's well worth watching.

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