By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 23, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Everything about the French drama Humanite is confounding. It’s glacially paced, opaque, and underpopulated. It contains long, numbing takes of a man’s staring eyes and long, unnerving takes of a woman’s exposed genitals. It won prizes at Cannes in 1999; it also elicited boos and titters. And it ought to be seen, because it’s a work of moral and spiritual mystery as stubbornly challenging as Gone in 60 Seconds is morally anesthetizing.

Writer-director Bruno Dumont’s meditation on human guilt and forgiveness is set, as was his previous, more accessible parable La Vie de Jesus, in an unpretty stretch of countryside that constitutes the entire universe to Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotte), the local police lieutenant in a town that barely constitutes a locality. Pharaon — living a life of daily tedium with his mother — is investigating the gruesome rape and murder of a girl; in his free time he tags after his neighbor Domino (Severine Caneele), a factory worker. He’s paralyzed in his love for the rough-featured young woman, and she may like him back. She shows it, though, by torturing him, letting him watch her engage in harsh sex with her bus-driver boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier).

Dumont suggests Pharaon is shouldering all the pain of the world. But this sometimes laughably slack man could be a murderer. Pharaon is also the fool, a doormat, or maybe even mentally ill — maddeningly, stingily, Dumont offers no clues, preferring ambiguity.

And there’s disconcerting ambiguity, too, about the performances of Schotte and Caneele, named Cannes’ Best Actor and Best Actress. Dumont regularly works with nonprofessionals to powerful effect, but Schotte’s glazed manner while accepting his prize suggests that he wasn’t acting, and neither was Caneele. Humanite tries one’s patience, but so does Jerry Bruckheimer, who gets off far too easy for his sins while Dumont must beg for an audience. B