"The Statement" opens in 1944 with a black-and-white montage of a young French officer in the pro-Nazi Vichy militia signaling a firing squad to execute seven Jews.
More than four decades later, having been sheltered by the Catholic Church in the meantime, the officer, Pierre Brossard, is on the run after a reluctant French government finally charges him with crimes against humanity.
The film, shot in France with a first-rate British cast, is a satisfying political thriller, combining a tour of scenic cathedrals and monasteries with an examination of the murky intersection where religion, politics, guilt and self-preservation meet.
Primarily responsible for the suspense and intensity of "The Statement," as well as some of its shortcomings, are three masters of their crafts. They are director Norman Jewison and actor Michael Caine -- both Yiddish-speaking Protestants -- who talked about the film and their personal backgrounds in face-to-face interviews at a Los Angeles hotel.
The third is Roland Harwood, the South African-born Jewish screenwriter, who received an Oscar for "The Pianist."
As the hunted Brossard, the 70-year-old Caine is a devout Catholic, whose twin goals are to escape his pursuers and to receive the church's absolution, so he may die in a state of grace.
After him are two gunmen, who initially appear to be members of a Jewish vigilante organization. They have been ordered to kill Brossard and to leave a statement on his body explaining that the assassination was in revenge for the killing of the seven, and of the other 77,000 French Jews who died at the hands of the German and Vichy regimes.
In the background, however, lurk powerful, shadowy figures, who have easily managed the transition from Nazi collaborators during World War II to high-ranking officials in the postwar French governments.
The film is adapted from a roman a clef of the same title by the late Catholic novelist Brian Moore, who based his characters on two of the Vichy regime's more despicable figures.
Bossard is modeled on Paul Touvier, who was actually pardoned by French President Georges Pompidou, but ultimately became the only Frenchman convicted of crimes against humanity.
Pulling the strings is a character known only as the "Old Man" in the film, representing Maurice Papon, who distinguished himself during the war by interning and deporting French Jews. He smoothly transitioned after the liberation to a banker and supporter of President Francois Mitterand, was decorated with the Legion of Honor in 1948, and then rose to police prefect of Paris.
The cast includes some top-notch British talent, among them Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam as government officials who crack the conspiracy, Alan Bates and Charlotte Rampling. They all do their profession proud, but the film is not entirely satisfying.
Surprising for someone of Harwood's caliber, parts of the dialogue sound stilted, especially in some of the pseudo-gangster talk. One also wonders how the shaky, winded and elderly Brossard repeatedly gets the drop on young professional killers.
More serious, especially in a film billed as a psychological thriller, is the lack of insight into the motivations of Brossard, or, as far as that goes, of the Vichy collaborators generally. Did they hate Jews? Did they consider themselves patriots? Were they ambitious opportunists?
The film is fully justified in indicting the shameful record of France's postwar governments, which, until quite recently, pulled a blanket of silence over their country's anti-Semitism and bootlicking of the Nazi conquerors during the war.
Interviews with Jewison and Caine did not resolve reservations about the film, but yielded some interesting items about two movie veterans who grew up as Christian lads in Jewish neighborhoods and are often taken as members of the tribe.
Jewison, 77, grew up in a working-class district in the east end of Toronto, an area with large Jewish and Irish Protestant populations, and attended a Jewish school.
By virtue of his last name, young Norman was often taunted by the Irish kids as "Jew boy" and "Jewie," and identified so closely with his Jewish classmates that he asked his parents why they didn't observe the Jewish holidays.
When his hit film, "Fiddler on the Roof," premiered in Jerusalem, Jewison was seated next to then-Prime Minister Golda Meir. "Everybody naturally assumed that I was Jewish and Golda kept calling me 'boyckik,'" he recalled.
Caine -- Sir Michael Caine -- has made some 90 films over a 50-year span, but nowadays he only accepts a role if it's amusing -- such as Austin Powers' father -- or challenging.
"I decided to play the French Nazi Brossard because his character was the farthest removed from my own," he said. "I don't want anyone to sympathize with Brossard, but I play him as a pathetic and sad man. I have talked to many racists and I always come away feeling how pathetic they are."
Born Maurice Micklewhite, Caine grew up in the heavily Jewish London East End, where his cockney father was a fish market porter and his mother a cleaning woman.
The future actor also attended a Jewish school, where a classmate was future playwright Harold Pinter, and functioned as a Shabbos goy for his Jewish neighbors.
"I went to their homes and lit the fires and earned a sixpence," he reminisced. "That was a lot of money to me then."
The Yiddish he picked up in his youth came in handy when Caine started making movies in Hollywood and his facility with the language led to considerable speculation that he was at least partially Jewish.
Based of his knowledge of different races and religions, Caine said, "If I am struck by one thing, it is how alike all people are."
"The Statement" is currently playing at The Grove Stadium 14 (323) 692-0829 and Landmark's Westside Pavilion (310) 281-8223. On Dec. 26, the film will also open in Encino, Pasadena and Irvine. Â
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