A pocket-size pleasure, the French movie “The Great Man” opens with a fairy-tale flourish as a child narrator winds up the once-upon-a-time. The movie then takes a break in a war zone, where a monster with glowing eyes briefly sends it into fantasy and a wounded soldier yanks it back to terra firma. Not long after, swells of emotion seep in like low-rolling fog and suddenly you are watching a drama about real people wrestling with life blow by blow.
The filmmaker Sarah Leonor has a keen eye and a gentle, unassuming touch. In “The Great Man,” she discreetly changes moods and storytelling modes like a pianist sliding her hand down a short, soft glissando. She has a graphic visual style, if one that loosens over the course of the movie, but she isn’t a show-off. You notice how she arranges soldiers in an overhead shot, lining them up like dolls or bowling pins. Yet she doesn’t linger over the image, like one of those directors who hold on a shot to make sure you can admire its every detail. Ms. Leonor isn’t interested in the hard sell; she lets you wander into the story, discover it, savor it.
The story beings with two Foreign Legion soldiers, Hamilton (a superb Jérémie Renier) and Markov (Surho Sugaipov, very fine), best friends stationed in Afghanistan. Similar in stature, compact physique and closely shorn hair, the two men do everything together, from patrolling the desert terrain in formation to spit-polishing their boots across from each other. Like an image and its shadow, they fit seamlessly, with gestures and movements that follow the same choreography. If they don’t say much it’s because the narrator, an unnamed boy (his identity obscured for maximum emotional impact) who introduces Hamilton and Markov, is doing all the talking. There’s a casual intimacy to this show-and-tell passage, as if the boy were reading aloud a bedtime story that he knew by heart.
It’s in Afghanistan that the soldiers confront the monster, a big wild cat whose ominous ember eyes prefigure graver dangers. And it’s there, too, while hunting the cat (at behest of the locals), that Hamilton and Markov stumble into an ambush. Hamilton is badly wounded and dragged to safety by Markov, who leaves his gear and gun behind in order to carry his friend to safety. In this soldier’s world abandoning a gun, for the higher-ups, trumps saving a comrade. Which is why after his five-year stint, Markov returns to civilian life, resumes using his real name — Mourad Massaev — and reunites with his 10-year-old son, Khadji (Ramzan Idiev), a child who’s a near stranger. The two warily circle each other before settling into the kind of easy rapport that Markov once had with Hamilton.
About an hour into the movie, a tragedy upends the scrupulously arranged parts. By that point, Markov and Hamilton, who’s been enduring a difficult convalesce in a military hospital, have been happily reunited. It’s also around then that Ms. Leonor, who slips little complications into the story as it unfolds (Chechnya figures in the mix, as does Markov’s dead wife), risks gumming up the works by having one man give his identity papers to the other. After an accident, this exchange, however, leads to another, more profound trade that transforms “The Great Man” into an emotionally affecting and gently political exploration of identity, trauma and the limits of empathy. It’s a modest stunner that’s so suffused with generous humanity that you’re never sure who the title actually refers to.
A picture caption on Friday with a film review of “The Great Man,” using information from press materials, misidentified the actor at the top. He is Surho Sugaipov — not Jérémie Renier, another cast member.