At the center of Daniel Auteuil’s astonishing summer film, “The Well-Digger’s Daughter,” is that eponymous daughter herself, the stunningly beautiful Astrid Berges-Frisbey. Try to find a name like that on the marquee of a blockbuster 3D fortress, even though, there she was tucked away in the credits of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

In Auteuil’s film, we come upon her as Patricia walking through sun-drenched fields and olive groves of Provence, carrying a luncheon basket to her well-digging father Pascale (director/writer Auteuil) who is laboring with his assistant Felipe (the wonderful Kad Merad). From the moment she turns to face the camera, we’re hers.

Pere Pascale is a well-weathered man with a face like a stone thrown down from a mountain. He is a man of great personal strength to whom dignity is more than a word, it is a precious gift from God, not to be toyed with, and actor Auteuil, who really grew up on this land, glows with the presence of it.

Poverty, to Pascale, and to most of the local peasants, is not a burden, but simply an inherited inconvenience. He has the land and his profession, there is simple food in their lives and a simple faith in their hearts. But Pascale, as we will discover, is no passive priest. He is one tough bird who wears the dirt under his fingernails with fierce pride. He is the direct descendent of Frenchmen who tore the lace from Louis, and fought with Napoleon. He is a laborer. He is human. He is France.

To Pascale, Patricia — who came home from a job with a wealthy woman to help her widowed father care for the other six daughters — is an angel sent from God.

Of course, such feelings so deep in his heart only add to the pain and soul-aching remorse he feels when she falls victim to the careless passions of Jacques, (Nicolas Duvauchelle) the son of a local wealthy merchant ( Jean Pierre Darroussin) and his haughty snobbish wife (Sabine Azema.)

The two sides of this centime are etched sharply on the counters of this village. But as it was all over the country, there was no “war” between the classes here, simply ancient and respectful distance.

On the day of her 18th birthday, Patricia meets the playboy, military pilot on leave, as she tries to cross a rushing stream. He carries her across, and after a joy ride on his motorcycle the flirtation begins between this young duke of wealth and the peasant convent girl. It’s an ancient tale, always told well by France’s great writer Maurice Pagnol (“Jean de Florette,” and “Fanny”). The lovers will meet again, of course, as World War I is creeping ever close to the countryside and small world of France.

We’re tempted to hiss at the advances of this bon vivant cad as he carelessly seduces our blossom. But there is more to him than meets the eye, and we can see that he, too, is being seduced by the purity and innocence of our country maiden.

Pagnol’s stories, skillfully and cleverly woven, still have the aroma of long-ago soap operas, and we are not surprised when Patricia must confront her father with her shocking news, nor are we surprised at his shattering and heart-breaking reaction.

It will seem for a time that Pagnol’s usual “tragedie d’amour” will prevail when word spreads through the village that Jacques’ plane has vanished. But when no real certainty is attached to the news, we can clearly see the end of this tale.

The performances of all the players are amazing. Daniel Auteuil is, of course, Frances’ combination of an aging Dustin Hoffman and the late Spencer Tracy. It’s no wonder he’s France’s premier player. But Kad Merad as Felipe, his assistant, and Sabine Azema as the boy’s mother are star players. Yet it is the mesmerizing Berges-Frisbey who lights all the dark corners with her radiance. I would fly to Paris to watch her sip her coffee in a cafe.

“The Well-Digger’s Daughter” rightfully won the coveted “Audience Award” at this summer’s Maine International Film Festival, and is back again at the insistence of the those who missed out and for the many who are waiting to see it again, and again.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.


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