A terse description of "Wings of Desire" makes it sound like any of many movies about heaven and earth: An angel falls in love with a mortal woman and desires to become mortal himself so he can be with her.

From "The Bishop's Wife" to "Heaven Can Wait," this subject and its variations are quite popular. In fact, just last year "Made in Heaven" had a similar theme.But in the hands of German filmmaker Wim Wenders, "Wings of Desire" is like no movie you've ever seen. At once mesmerizing and perplexing, this is a film about love and despair and the choices mortals have in dealing with each. It is so artistic, graceful, gentle and hopeful that - to borrow a literary phrase - you can't put it down.

It is also a deceptively simple movie, but there's no question that you'll be thinking about it for some time to come.

In a switch of what you might expect (and of "Made in Heaven's" motif), the majority of the film is in black and white, representing the angels' viewpoint, with just a few color moments here and there. Then the film is almost entirely in color for its final third as our main character becomes mortal at last.

He is Damiel (Bruno Ganz), and it is through his eyes that we learn this

film's vision of what eternity is like for those who watch over us. These angels are observers and helpers, outsiders if you will, reading the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of humans as they move unseen among them. Unseen, that is, by all but the children.

Damiel wanders through his assigned city - Berlin - and listens to the conversations inside the heads of people in apartments, in airplanes, in libraries, on the streets.

His occasional companion, with whom he compares notes on the human condition, is Cassiel (Otto Sander), and soon Damiel confides that he yearns to experience mortality.

This yearning is intensified when he feels himself falling in love with Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a young trapeze artist in a small circus. She is lonely, unhappy and momentarily contemplates suicide. And poor Damiel can't get her out of his mind.

Meanwhile, we see both Damiel and Cassiel trying to help the humans who are their eternal assignment, gently placing an unfelt - or is it unfelt? - hand on the shoulder as comfort. Sometimes the humans respond, the presence of the angel has been felt and their love accepted. But sometimes, as in a most touching moment where a young man commits suicide by jumping from a building, it is not.

Amid all this is actor Peter Falk, in a quirky supporting role as himself. Falk provides a certain comic relief, especially when he has a little revelation about himself toward the end of the film.

"Wings of Desire" is a most moving film, fascinating in many ways and very warm. Director and co-writer Wenders ("Paris Texas") occasionally stretches out his moments a bit too long, and there are a few too many "Columbo" jokes about Falk.

But those quibbles aside, "Wings of Desire" is uniquely wonderful, with many memorable scenes and Bruno Ganz provides the perfect gentle angel face for Wenders to hold with his camera as both Ganz and Wenders observe humanity.

It is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence, though they are muted, a couple of profanities, and a brief nude scene. Most of the dialogue is in German with English subtitles, but there is also a fair amount of English dialogue.