THE ambitions of French filmmaker Claude Berri have grown more sweeping in recent years.
In earlier movies such as ``One Wild Moment'' and ``The Two of Us,'' he told straightforward stories that retained their modest dimensions while showing unexpected depths of meaning and emotion. In his most widely celebrated films of the mid-1980s, however, he took a different approach - spreading the tales of ``Jean de Florette'' and ``Manon of the Spring'' over several hours of screen time, allowing audiences to feel like inhabitants of their worlds rather than mere observers of their characters and plots.
Berri's latest film, ``Germinal,'' returns to this expansive narrative approach. Closely based on the muckraking French novel published by Emile Zola in 1885, it takes considerable time to spin out its tale, incorporating a wide range of incidents and unfolding its sense of time, place, and atmosphere with a multitude of carefully wrought details.
The film is exemplary in its historical awareness and its concern for inequities of wealth and opportunity in a nation that could afford much better if it cared to try.
There's a lurking contradiction, though, in its insistence on making social and political points through traditional Hollywood-style spectacle. One wonders if Berri ever noticed the paradox at the heart of his project: It champions the anonymous masses over the privileged elite, but it does this through old-fashioned movie formulas, complete with swarming crowds of anonymous extras who serve as backdrops for the luminous movie stars in the leading roles.
To its credit, the screenplay by Berri and Arlette Langmann takes reasonable care not to sentimentalize the poor or demonize the rich in ways not justified by the historical facts as conveyed through Zola's novel. The book uses conventions of 19th-century naturalism and scientific analysis in chronicling a violent conflict between oppressed coal miners and the pit owners.
To a degree, all the individuals involved in the story are seen as products of the mining and manufacturing system, which rewards one kind of risk (financial investment) with profits and privileges while punishing another kind of risk (labor in the mines) with relentless danger, physical damage, and psychological decay.
True to the French Revolution that helped form them, the exploited masses are as capable of horrific excess as the wealthy capitalists they're driven to oppose; and the bosses often seem more insensitive and unthinking than evil or brutal. Still, it's always clear where Berri's sympathies lie, and there's no questioning his basic stance in favor of the toiling workers and against the system.
The shortcoming that dogs ``Germinal'' despite its dramatic authenticity and sometimes powerful acting is rooted not in its ideas but in its cinematic style. While this isn't slick or glossy, it's always calculated to glean maximum impact from the photogenic presences of the stars and the eye-beguiling detail of their historically correct surroundings. Zola's novel is intensely critical of abuses in 19th-century capitalism.
Yet the film version of ``Germinal'' mirrors some of that system's core values - most notably a glorification of wealth, reflected by the movie's expensive production and an obsession with individual heroics.
In sum, Berri's film is easy to enjoy as a saga of underdogs against fat-cats; but one looks in vain for more incisive social or historical analysis, and one finds little sense that its interests are rooted in the imperfect present as well as the troubled past.
As so often happens, Gerard Depardieu - as Maheu, a foreman in the mines - manages to dominate much of the film even though others have more time on the screen. The same goes for his female counterpart, Miou-Miou, as Maheu's long-suffering wife.
The folk singer known as Renaud makes a strong impression in his first movie role, playing Etienne, a newcomer to the mines who becomes an activist on behalf of the workers' cause. Laurent Terzieff gives a standout performance as Souvarine, a glowering anarchist so radical that he thinks the local Marxists are a bunch of right-wing wimps.
``Germinal'' was filmed in the northern French region of Lille, an appropriate location with a history of mining activity; about 800 inhabitants of the area were employed as extras, and much of the action was shot in an actual mining village rebuilt for this production.
The set was designed by Thanh At Hoang and Christian Marti, and Yves Angelo did the sumptuous cinematography.
* ``Germinal'' is not rated. It contains nudity, sexual activity, and some horrifying violence, although not as much as Zola's novel includes.