"Cyrano de Bergerac" has the distinction of being nominated for five Oscars, including Gerard Depardieu as best actor - quite a feat for a foreign-language film in limited distribution.
But when you see it you'll understand why.This "Cyrano" is much less theatrical than you might expect, with scope and depth on a par with Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" last year. Full advantage is taken of location shooting and huge battle sequences in the second half, as well as exquisite period detail and costuming throughout.
But what really tops off this adaptation of "Cyrano" is the lead performance by Depardieu, who also stars in the current "Green Card."
Those who recall the 1950 film, for which Jose Ferrer won an Oscar, know how good his performance is but how stagy and stiff the rest of the film seems - especially by today's standards. (Then there's Steve Martin's "Roxanne," a comic update, which became one of Martin's most popular films.)
As directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who also co-wrote the screenplay based on Edmond Rostand's play, this new "Cyrano de Bergerac" is very faithful to the original, allowing Depardieu, a most powerful actor, to fully bloom in one of theater's most vivid roles.
They have chosen to make this version darker, however, more bitter and biting (though still with many funny moments). And, as opposed to Ferrer's temperamental but slightly more laid-back interpretation, Depardieu is bombastic and full of fire from his first moment on the screen.
The story is familiar, of course: Cyrano is a 17th-century swordsman whose nose is ridiculously large but whose wit is even greater. He is an embittered poet who is easy to anger and especially frustrated about his unrequited love for his beautiful cousin, Roxane.
Cyrano rhapsodizes as he quips about his own nose to insult a witless challenger and then improvises a poem as he takes him in a duel. But the plot goes into full gear when he is summoned by Roxane, not to be told she loves him, but that she loves another, Christian - from a distance.
Worse, she urges Cyrano to befriend Christian and keep him from danger. Cyrano does so, and when he finds that Christian is dull he even writes lyrical love letters to Roxane in Christian's name - the ultimate sacrifice.
The entire cast is marvelous here, but Depardieu is riveting when he's on the screen - which is most of the time.
Over the years, the prolific Depardieu - a French superstar who turns out two or three movies a year - has proven what a wide range of talent he has in an amazing array of films. But certainly "Cyrano" is some sort of fitting apex, an incredibly entertaining classic brought to life by one of the world's most talented craftsmen.
The only complaint some might have about this film is that some of the dialogue tends to fly by rather quickly, which requires a bit of subtitle speed-reading from time to time. But on the whole that is not a problem - especially with Anthony Burgess' literate English translation, which keeps the poetic dialogue in perfect symmetry.
"Cyrano de Bergerac," rated PG for violence - swordplay and wartime battles - is a great film that should capture an audience beyond those who regularly attend foreign-language movies.