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Like Krzysztof Kieslowski before him, Lucian Pintilié has gone French. Both An Unforgettable Summer and The Oak, the writer/director’s previous film, are set in potentially explosive Romanian backwaters, but where its predecessor had a chaotic, matter-of-factly surrealistic manner characteristic of Eastern European cinema, Summer is measured and Cartesian—a tragedy of manners. It’s almost as stylishly refined as its central character, Marie-Thérèse Von Debretsy (Kristin Scott-Thomas), a French-speaking Romanian noblewoman of Hungarian descent who spent her childhood in England.

Pintilié worked frequently as a theater director in Paris during his 20-year exile from Ceausescu’s Romania, so it’s not as if the francs that underwrote Summer are his first acquaintance with the French. Still, the difference between the crisply controlled Summer and the clamorous Oak is noteworthy. The two films share little except setting—and the fury at their core.

Summer is framed by the ironically cheery reminiscences of Von Debretsy’s now-grown son, and presents its opening credits over a bravura shot from the point of view of a horse’s rider. The horse is galloping to the ferry carrying two officers from their remote garrison in the ethnically diverse province of Dobroudja, awarded to Romania after the end of World War I seven years before but still claimed by neighboring Bulgaria. There’s a party scheduled in a nearby town, one so important that the local bordello has been ordered closed for 48 hours. The fiery prostitute who moons the arriving swells, it’s noted, is Hungarian—just like the vivacious, self-assured Von Debretsy.

At the party, the latter outshines her husband, Capt. Petre Dumitriu (Claudiu Bleont), a short, unimpressive man whose principal advantage is a Prussian military education. Von Debretsy’s charms attract the attention of Dumitriu’s superior, Gen. Vorvoreanu (George Constantin), who insists she dance with him. Insulted, Dumitriu requests a transfer, and is rewarded with “a taste of the border.” Soon he, his wife, their three young children, and their harpsichord arrive at the already introduced garrison.

Something of a freethinker and an internationalist despite her noble bearing and English education, Von Debretsy professes to find the dusty, bug-ridden outpost a paradise, and seems to be sincere. Her children frolic with the geese, and the local peasants help her cultivate fine salad vegetables. (“The Salad” is the name of the Petru Dumitriu story from which Pintilié derived the script.) She says the good-hearted local peasants—Bulgarians, Macedonians, and Turks among them—remind her of Tolstoy’s stories of the Caucasus.

Among the population, however, are also bandits who kill Romanian troops and slice off their lips, a possible fate that makes the soldiers understandably jumpy. They also don’t much approve of Von Debretsy’s benevolence toward the peasants, nor of her bohemian grandness—her harpsichord, her elaborate mirror, her immodest bathing in the courtyard with her daughters and son, whose naked body she covers with kisses. Sometimes, unseen tormentors aim projectiles in her direction.

After the members of one patrol are butchered by bandits, the troops round up some Bulgarian peasants in retaliation. Von Debretsy offers them wine from goblets, pays them to help in the garden, and blithely reassures them that they’ll soon be set free. She’s wrong. Though the men are innocent, their execution has been ordered, and it could cost Dumitriu his career to honor his wife’s compassion over his superiors’ ruthlessness.

Both foolish and honorable, Scott-Thomas’ Von Debretsy is the embodiment of well-meaning Europe’s halting realization that World War I didn’t conclude the continent’s ethnic strife. (Neither, of course, did World War II or the end of the Cold War, as the Balkans’ recent history makes grimly pertinent.) The events that prompt this realization are presented classically: off-screen, and without the boiling-over hysteria of The Oak or other recent Romanian films like Mircea Daneliuc’s The Conjugal Bed. It’s a rather Western approach to an Eastern upheaval, but the effect is all the more devastating for that. A national tragedy on a modest scale, Summer is coolly urgent.

If all of Murder in the First were as intense as the first 20 minutes, the film might well be unendurable. But it would also be a lot better.

As agitprop, the principal problem with this exposé (“inspired” by a true story) is that it confronts an outrage that’s safely 50 years in the past. As drama, though, it soon turns into contemporary Hollywood mush, hosing down nuance and credibility with the ruthlessness of the guards who begin torturing Alcatraz prisoner Henri Young (Kevin Bacon) as soon as the fake newsreel that opens the film ends.

As portrayed by director Marc Rocco (Where the Day Takes You) and scripter Dan Gordon (Wyatt Earp), Young is near saintly: an orphaned teen-ager sentenced to what was then America’s toughest prison for stealing five bucks from a rural post office to feed his starving younger sister. In fact, Young was a bank robber, though that doesn’t justify the way he was treated at Alcatraz, “the jewel of the prison system.” After a 1938 escape attempt, the inmate was kept imprisoned in a lightless underground isolation cell for more than three years and allowed out into sunlight and air for a half-hour just once a year, on Christmas. When he finally rejoined the prison’s general population, he killed the man who had informed on the escape attempt, Rufus McCain.

Young and the quickly dispatched McCain are the only historical characters here. Brash young San Francisco defense attorney James Stamphill (Christian Slater) is a composite of two people, while Associate Warden Milton Glenn (just the sort of button-down, God-fearing sadist you’d expect Gary Oldman to play) is fictionalized. As the filmmakers see it, the tale’s essence is the relationship between Young and Stamphill, two young men separated only by their legacies, respectively, of deprivation and privilege. “I coulda been just like you,” the childlike defendant tells his lawyer, and Rocco seems to agree. (Perhaps the director even means to underline this role-playing thesis with the shot of a marquee advertising Meet John Doe, the 1941 Frank Capra film in which Gary Cooper is hired to flesh out a cynical journalist’s made-up news story.)

If it’s improbable that Stamphill, as a brand-new public defender, would be assigned to handle a murder-one case by himself, that’s not nearly so improbable as the way he handles it. The defense attorney affronts the judge, badgers witnesses, and interjects conclusions into his questioning—he’s as out of control as Fred Murphy’s camera, which loops and spins as if still dizzy from shooting some sky-diving flick. (“There were no car crashes,” Gordon told the New York Times, explaining why his script was shelved until French money made shooting possible, but a Steadicam smashup seems ever possible.) Prosecutor McNeil (William H. Macy) eventually stops objecting to Stamphill’s bluster, and you know you’re in Hollywood when McNeil whispers a commendation of his legal adversary’s wild but triumphant tactics.

Rocco creates an ominous ambience at first, but he soon surrenders it to jolly nonsense like that. Brad Dourif is effectively creepy in a bit part as Stamphill’s gutless older brother, a corporate lawyer, but the film dissipates its mood with cute stuff, like the repeated scenes of Stamphill running for cable cars he never quite catches, and anachronisms, like its references to “the media” and metal detectors. As it’s buffeted mercilessly by Christopher Young’s overweening score, Murder slides from gritty to slick. The final downbeat development is a jarring attempt to return to the film’s early grimness, but it doesn’t square with Stamphill’s courtroom success. Given his astonishing victory over Alcatraz, J. Edgar Hoover, and the American way, you wonder why Young doesn’t fare better—and why, for that matter, Stamphill ever permitted McCarthy, Nixon, and the Japanese-American concentration camps to happen.