The Widow of St. Pierre is proving to be a controversial film among critics, but that is no surprise. Any time a movie grapples openly with the issue of capital punishment, tempers will heat up, and this is the subject's boldest treatment since Dead Man Walking.

Director Patrice Leconte's new film is a literary tragedy, based on true events. Lawmakers in the French settlement of St. Pierre, Newfoundland, are eager to acquire a guillotine (a device nicknamed "the widow") to legally behead convicted killer Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturica). The broad-shouldered, wild-haired sailor has in a drunken stupor killed a man who threatened him with a knife. It was, debatably, an unpremeditated and unthinking act, although Auguste's taunting provoked the scuffle. Before a court, he brokenly admits to his crime, although he can hardly remember the specifics. He is nevertheless condemned to death.

The army captain (the magnificent Daniel Auteuil), who acts as a sort of town sheriff, locks up the dejected criminal in a cell at his home. Madame La, the captain's spirited wife (played by the radiant Juliette Binoche), decides to teach Auguste something about responsibility and goodness. She allows him to work on their home and begins teaching him to read. Slowly, neighbors grow curious. Maybe Auguste isn't a hardened killer. Maybe they rashly judged him for what was really a terrible moment of immaturity. At the Hollywood Jesus Web site, the film's central issue is clearly summed up. "This film helps us to question the appropriateness of capital punishment. Do people change? Neel Auguste certainly did. Do we do anything, as Madame La did, to bring change into their lives or do we simply seek to punish them and treat them cruelly?"

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