All Hail the New Olivier

French director Jean-Paul Rappeneau's The Horseman on the Roof is the kind of grand, stirring epic that lightweight pretenders such as Hollywood's Legends of the Fall aspire to be when they grow up. Rappeneau, the man responsible for 1990's spectacular adaption of Cyrano de Bergerac, spits directly into the prevailing wind of cynicism and succeeds a second time in translating a classic piece of French literature to the screen (the film is in French with English subtitles). He forges a swashbuckling tale of love, honor, and valor so irresistible it could make altruism hip.

From its opening scene of an exiled Italian army officer narrowly escaping his bloodthirsty Austrian pursuers, Horseman gallops off on a grandly scaled heroic adventure. You don't need to understand European history to appreciate the action, but it helps. The year is 1832. Napoleon's fall has allowed the forces of the Austrian empire to storm the continent. The Carbonari, an impassioned band of Italian freedom fighters, once battled the Austrians with the help of Napoleon's troops; now, hunted by Austrian spies, many Carbonari have escaped into France and continued their struggle in exile.

Angelo Pardi (scene-stealingly handsome and surprisingly assured newcomer Olivier Martinez), a dashing 25-year-old Carbonaro whose mother bought him a commission as a colonel before packing him off to France (while she stayed behind), has taken refuge in Aix-en-Provence. On a glorious summer evening, as fireworks fill the sky and Frenchmen dance in the streets without a care in the world, a clutch of Austrian assassins steals into Aix, murders one Carbonaro, and hunts for Angelo. The smooth-faced colonel flees across the spectacular countryside, as Rappeneau's cameras contrast the possibility of violent death with the beauty of the lush woods, golden wheat fields, and breathtaking sunsets.

But Angelo rides from one life-threatening jam into another. Days later he arrives in a village decimated by an outbreak of cholera. The only living soul he meets there is a doctor who teaches him techniques for stimulating circulation, the only known (and highly ineffective) treatment for the lethal disease. The movie exaggerates the virulence of the disease to make it seem even more horrible than it really is, accelerating the time required -- mere minutes -- to progress from infecting a person to the poor guy's inevitable, grotesque demise. According to this Horseman, the death throes of cholera victims include graying skin, glazing eyeballs, bilious vomit, and violent convulsions -- all occurring in a matter of seconds. Everywhere he goes Angelo discovers the frozen, tortured faces of corpses. Again, Rappeneau highlights and contrasts the pastoral tranquillity of Angelo's surroundings with the menace of mortality. The pall of death looming in such placid settings feels eerily incongruous and surreal.

Preoccupied with a desire to test his mettle against his Austrian enemies, Angelo fails to realize he is already proving his courage by rolling up his sleeves and pitching in to aid the miserable wretches who have contracted the noxious malady. But he doesn't even get a chance to demonstrate that valor when he enters the village of Manosque, where fear of cholera has whipped the citizens into a state of hysteria. They immediately accuse the dashing stranger of poisoning their water supply and causing an epidemic. Horseman takes a few saber swipes at the psychology of panic as skilled swordsman Angelo fends off a rabid mob with his cutlass, dodges them through a maze of twisted alleyways, and ultimately clambers to the safety of a sun-scorched tile rooftop. As he did in Cyrano, Rappeneau expertly stages the swordplay and the harrowing escapes; even without its deeper musings on the nature of fear and heroism, Horseman succeeds magnificently as a pure period action-adventure.

From his lofty vantage point, Angelo watches with mixed emotions as a handful of the Austrian spies who have been dogging him wander into town and are set upon by the frenzied crowd. He shakes his head in dismay at the insanity of it all, and wonders aloud if the world is coming to an end. When night A and torrential rain A fall on the sleeping town, Angelo slips into the attic of what he presumes to be a deserted home. But the dwelling isn't empty; the luminously beautiful Pauline de Thäus (Juliette Binoche) fearlessly confronts the intruder, welcoming him with food instead of screaming, fighting, or running from the strange man. Famished and bone-tired though he may be, Angelo threatens to leave when Pauline playfully teases her guest about his impeccable manners and formal behavior. A coy smile only slightly more pronounced than the Mona Lisa's crosses her lips as she talks her sensitive visitor into staying. Sparks fly, but there's no hanky-panky. The subtlest, sweetest, most old-fashioned courtship this side of Sense and Sensibility has just begun.

And so has a new phase of Angelo's big adventure. Pauline has a long and perilous cross-country journey to undertake, and the chivalrous Italian insists upon escorting her. Along the way, Angelo warns his fellow exile Carbonari of the Austrian hit men and accepts a saddlebag full of gold that must be smuggled back into Italy to bolster the Carbonari cause. Together Pauline and Angelo evade the Austrians, the French army, cholera, and even some overly aggressive birds of prey as they ride off together.

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