ARMY OF SHADOWS — *** 1/2 — Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret; in French, with English subtitles; not rated, probable PG-13 (violence, profanity, drug, torture, vulgarity, ethnic slurs).

Many films diminish with age and quickly feel dated. Rare is the film that actually improves with time.

Among that handful is the 1969 French thriller "Army of Shadows," which has never — or at least rarely — been seen in the United States. And it's doubtful the film would have seemed as prescient and powerful as it does today.

Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who shot the film, supervised this restoration, which took years because of a scarcity of usable prints. Specialty distributor Rialto Pictures acquired the rights to this restored version and is releasing it in art-house theaters around the country.

"Army of Shadows" depicts the activities of the French Resistance, which operated within its German-occupied homeland during World War II.

As the film shows, most of its members were ordinary French citizens who felt compelled to do something about their country's plight. One was civil engineer Philippe Gerbier (played here by the late Italian actor Lino Ventura, best known in this country for "The Valachi Papers").

Comment on this story

According to this version of events, Philippe and other members of the underground live in constant fear of discovery, and betrayals by their fellow conspirators were fairly common.

Rather than play up the action elements, director Jean-Pierre Melville ("Le Samourai") chose to shoot the film as a low-budget docudrama. His no-frills filmmaking techniques are very effective — except for one glaring weakness, a toy-plane sequence that looks pretty silly and probably should have been cut.

The cast is low-key, and the performances fit with the film's tone. In particular, Simone Signoret is terrific as a mother whose loyalties are tested.

"Army of Shadows" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for scenes of war violence (shootings, a strangulation and some explosive mayhem), scattered profanity, drug content (use of cyanide pills), a scene of torture (off-screen), and use of some suggestive language, as well as a few ethnic slurs. Running time: 140 minutes.