During World War II, the Vichy government of Nazi-occupied France executed roughly 77,000 Jews. These executioners were, of course, just following orders -- except for those eager gendarmes who jumped the gun and immediately launched their pogroms. Some of these people met justice after the war, and some slipped back into French society, occasionally attaining positions of authority.
One such fellow who got away, but who remained an inconspicuous everyman for half a century, was Pierre Brossard, a fictional creation of the writer Robin Moore, and the central figure in director Norman Jewison's film of Moore's novel The Statement. As played by Michael Caine, who channels a hint of Laurence Olivier's on-the-run Nazi in Marathon Man, Brossard is an understandably anxious and rather wimpy fellow, except when he needs to kill one of the assassins sent by a clandestine Jewish group to avenge his war crimes, or when he threatens his ex-wife's beloved dog to get her to do what he wants.
How has he survived for all of these years? With the help of a secret society of abbots and monsignors called the "Chevaliers de Ste.-Marie." He even received a presidential pardon somewhere along the way. But now a new "crimes against humanity" law has made him a criminal again, and he's being trailed by a magistrate (Tilda Swinton), for whom the hunt is personal, and her temporary colleague, a career Army officer (Jeremy Northam) whose reserve tempers her impetuous tenacity.
I don't know how an old-fashioned thriller like this ever got made by an old Hollywood director (Jewison won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night) and a bunch of English actors playing French people (Alan Bates and Charlotte Rampling have small roles). But it did, and Jewison made it well: The Statement is efficient, intelligent and perfectly happy not to bludgeon you with its condemnation of the usual suspects.
It's about the wages of sin, the long arm of vengeance, and the always-unhealthy mix of religion, politics and history. It's also about the Catholic Church's ongoing complicity, both active and passive, in the Holocaust, which makes it an accidental companion piece to the debate over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: Brossard is a "traditional" Catholic -- Latin from the pulpit, no blacks in the pews -- who gets absolution from the Church and a place to live despite his ongoing crimes.
"When the law and politics collide," a government minister warns the magistrate, "the law always comes out the worst." Add "religion" to the formula and you have 21st-century France, which in real life has just banned religious garb in schools. Little of this comes up overtly in Jewison's plot- and dialogue-driven thriller. But if you like English actors and French locales, there's no reason why you can't bring it up afterwards.