It's hard to imagine stronger casting than the trio of Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil in this epic saga of provincial hopes, greed and inhumanity.
These three great actors dominate the screen in beautifully nuanced characterisations. Gerard Depardieu is Jean Cadoret, aka 'Jean de Florette' - the son of Mme Florette - who has come from the city to the Provence countryside to claim his inheritance, a rundown country house and land.
He is a strong and sensitive man who has brought his wife and child with him to build a new life. He is also a hunchback, which fills his neighbours with superstitious fear and dislike.
Yves Montand is Cesar Soubeyran, the proud land-owner who covets the water-source that is on Jean's land, a natural spring that never runs dry. And Daniel Auteuil is Soubeyran's last kin; his nephew Ugolin, who, though not simple-minded as the DVD blurb labels him, is perhaps one voucher short of a pop-up toaster.
Ugolin is totally willing to go along with his uncle's plans to drive Jean de Florette from his land. Ugolin wants the water from the spring to bring to life his dream - of becoming a large-scale carnation-grower - with the water allowing richly scented and coloured life to burst from the hard dry soil. So they close off the spring with a subterranean concrete plug. And then watch, they even pretend to help, as Jean searches hopelessly for a source of water to make his own dream of a country life come true.
It's a grim tale, and this first part of the two-part tale (the second half comes in the DVD Manon des Sources) follows an inexorable course which is all the more believable because of its utter predictability.
Director Claude Berri has directed the adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's novel with a sure touch. The pacing of this drama is superb, while the way the characters develop is wondrous. These are great actors, to be sure. But Berri brings out remarkably subtle performances, creating totally believable characters who otherwise could have been mere stereotypes.
The cinematography is ravishingly beautiful, almost as beautiful as the cinematography in the wonderful movies of life in Provence, My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle. And the musical accompaniment deserves special kudos. An adaptation for mouth-organ of a theme from Verdi's opera The Force of Destiny sounds too atrocious to be true - it is in fact amazingly evocative and effective.
The anamorphic transfer has been made from a very sound print source, with little in the way of flaws or artefacts evident. I thought I noticed a touch of edge-enhancement at times, but the effect was so subtle that it passed almost without notice.
Colours are bright and vibrant, while night scenes are also well-rendered with dramatic shadow-contrast. The subtitles are yellow, for greater visibility than the traditional white print, and are well translated in British English, as distinct from the American version - were they prepared by SBS? They do bear their literate hallmarks.
This is a standard two-channel Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack. It's very clear, with a fine feeling for ambience and with subtle recording and placement of country sounds - at times it's hard to tell which off-centre sounds of nature are coming from the soundtrack or from outside.
Dialogue is precisely rendered, and the music track is particularly well recorded, with nice rounded depth. The disc demonstrates that for older movies, two-channel sound can still be a rich experience.
When I first saw this movie, about 15 years ago, I was a bit underwhelmed - I thought of it as something of a French provincial soap-opera. This second viewing has changed my mind, and I'm particularly impressed by the richness and subtlety of the acting of the three leads, Montand, Depardieu and Auteuil.
Whether you rent or buy, you must see it. But simultaneously rent or buy its sequel, Manon des Sources (also known as Jean de Florette II). You'll be compelled to view on, to see how this rural drama finally unfolds.