The story begins in 1849 on the remote French island of Saint-Pierre, just off the coast of Newfoundland, where life in the delicate settlement is torn asunder by a murder. While in a drunken stupor, two men attack and disembowel another, driven by nothing more than curiosity as to whether he was "fat or just big." No sooner are the accused condemned to die by guillotine than one is prematurely killed in an accident, leaving his somber accomplice, Neel Auguste (filmmaker Emir Kusturica), to atone for their sins alone. But there is a complication--the island has no guillotine with which to carry out the sentence.
As the village leaders undertake the arduous process of locating and procuring a guillotine from elsewhere, Auguste is placed in the custody of the dutiful yet compassionate local army captain (Daniel Auteuil) whose wife (Juliette Binoche), makes no secret of her disapproval of the death sentence. In the weeks that follow, and with tacit approval from her husband, she makes it her mission to redeem Auguste in the eyes of the townspeople, a mission which will eventually place the letter of the law at odds with the spirit of humanity.
That "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" is based on actual events only makes the achievement even more remarkable. Sensitive, subtle and meticulously executed as one would expect from the director of "The Hairdresser's Husband," "Monsieur Hire" and "Ridicule," "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" flirts with perfection at nearly every turn, viscerally communicating the austerity of 19th-century life while never losing sight of the timeless power of forgiveness and redemption. Contributions both before and behind the camera are likewise flawless, from the three excellent leads to Joelle Hache's superb cinematography and Pascal Esteve's rich, melancholic score. Starring Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil and Emir Kusturica. Directed by Patrice Leconte. Written by Claude Faraldo and Patrice Leconte. Produced by Gilles Legrand and Frederic Brillion. An Epithete Films production. A Lions Gate release. Period drama. French-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 113 min.