Patrice Leconte’s new film, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, is everything an old-fashioned (in the best sense of the word) romantic spectacle ought to be — at once involving, moving, beautiful to look at and (even better) laced with ironic observations and a sense of purpose. The story — based on the historical account of a man condemned to death on the island of Saint-Pierre, who became a local hero while awaiting the arrival of a guillotine (in period French slang, “The Widow”) and an executioner to carry out the sentence — offered Leconte and screenwriter Claude Faraldo ample scope to explore the human interactions of the story’s three main characters, as well as room to explore the themes of love, risk, chance, and redemption. The resulting film, despite a strong plot, is almost entirely character-driven. “Had I tried to begin The Widow of Saint-Pierre with the subject ‘Can one change one’s destiny?’ that would have been too heavy. Instead, images inspired me to make The Widow of Saint-Pierre. The sea. A boat. Love. A horse. And, of course, characters … characters, not just a subject,” explained Leconte in the production notes. And it is the characters who ultimately give life to the film’s subject. The condemned man, Neel Auguste (newcomer Emir Kusturica, previously a writer-director himself (Arizona Dream)), is immediately sympathetic, despite the brutal, stupid nature of his crime (the drunken stabbing of a man to determine whether the victim was merely a large man or a fat one). That Neel is utterly repentant for this senseless act of drunken violence is never in question — yet neither is his own sense that he deserves his fate and intends on submitting to it. It is through the intercession of the wife, Madame La (Juliette Binoche), of the Captain (Daniel Auteuil, The Girl on the Bridge) — who is in charge of keeping Neel a prisoner until he can be properly executed — that the condemned man is given a chance to show his true self to the island community. Annexing his services at first to help her build a greenhouse, Madame La slowly integrates the prisoner into the community, where he becomes useful and even heroic. One of the more pleasantly surprising aspects of the film is that the expected romance — at least in any traditional sense — between Neel and Madame La never materializes. Instead, she fixes him up with the needy widow, La Malvilain (Catherine Lascault, The Girl on the Bridge). But it is essentially the strange relationship of Neel, Madame La and the Captain — and their devotion not just to each other, but to who they are and what they believe — that is central to the film. Unfortunately, their beliefs and even those of the common islanders are at odds with the Powers That Be, whose only interest lies in protecting the status quo at any cost. It is giving away nothing to note that it is, of course, the status quo that will ultimately be preserved — but at what cost to its credibility? Moreover, the film has the judgment to put forth the idea that persons crushed under the weight of those kind of machinations are not the ones who are defeated, because they held true to themselves in the face of their own potential destruction. Anyone even marginally familiar with Leconte’s work knows that this is central to his concerns, making The Widow of Saint-Pierre an essential addition to his filmography. Brilliantly acted with great subtlety by a powerful cast, visually striking and hauntingly scored, it is very possibly the most completely satisfying film around just now.