The French are not typically associated with faulty artistic taste. But, in 1969, their community of film critics warranted such an allegation. That year, reputed director Jean-Pierre Melville released "Army of Shadows," a bruising meditation on the death-marked travails of the French Resistance during World War II. Allegedly, Melville's compatriots hated on it. What a shame. Based on this cool reception, Hollywood stymied its theatrical release in the United States and, unquestionably, has been the lesser for it. Yet this is no longer the case, as original cinematographer Pierre Lhomme oversaw its 35mm color restoration, which is now in limited release stateside.

However, here's an important disclaimer: Though an excellent film, technically crisp and superlatively taut, it seems excessive to hail "Army of Shadows" as the best release of 2006, much less among the finest of all cinematic works. This is a strange and difficult film, one that is not meant to engage you but to chill and afflict you with weariness. From its opening assertion of Nazi dominion to its closing re-affirmation of that reality, "Army of Shadows" ceaselessly pounds away on the defeat of hope and its human casualties.

The plotline follows the cautious days and weary nights of Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a laconic and expressionless civil engineer who appears ill qualified for the cutthroat grind of subverting the Nazi occupiers. This could not be any less true — the shocking reach of his resolve is only gradually revealed. He begins as an imprisoned man, subsequently escapes, and then re-immerses himself in the inescapably boring and dirty deeds of the French Resistance. Thus we encounter him as a logistical planner, a recruiter, and an accomplice to executions. His cohorts seem similar to him, but we cannot be fully certain of this. There's the iconic leader of the Resistance Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), the dashing Jean Francois Jardie (Jean Pierre Cassel), the stalwart Felix (Paul Crauchet) and the ever-resourceful Mathilde (Simone Signoret).

Here's where the peculiarity of "Army of Shadows" lies — over the course of this 145-minute stretch, you realize you have essentially learned nothing about any of these characters. They are constantly interacting, whether it is in planning the delivery of a transmitter from Marseilles to Paris, or in hatching a scheme to oust a comrade from incarceration. But their devotion to one another begins and ends with the cause of resistance. The script allows for nary a moment of casual human interplay between them.

For instance, Mathilde once tells Gerbier that her family is unaware of her anti-Nazi activities. She proceeds to show him a photograph of her daughter. But instead of inquiring further about this child or noting her beauty, he quickly responds that Mathilde should not keep such an item on her, as it could be tragically compromising. The burning devotion to the French Resistance subsumes all remnants of color, humor and complexity within these characters, making them equally unknowable from beginning to end. They are distant even to one another, despite sharing in a high-minded purpose.

Without highly engaging characters, one would assume that a narrative peppered with rousing suspense and intrigue would have to compensate for such a lack. But this too proves false. The story is comprised of episodic sketches of the operational ground game, which offer sparse details on what we are actually witnessing. Everything is coded, terse and packed with whispers. But, the missions are not what count. It's the battling clash of despair and determination within these characters that propels the narrative to be as wrenching as it is.

The visual style of "Army of Shadows" reinforces that stark tone. It's spare and empty, like a dystopian vision. The sun never shines, a swath of grays and husky hues abounds, and barely any shots ever aim to capture the beauty or complexity of the surroundings. The opener focuses on the Arc de Triomphe, but it does so in a commanding shot of Nazi soldiers.

"Army of Shadows" is about a mindset with which few can truly empathize. It's perfectly embodied in a scene that initially comes off like a curious diversion but, in fact, is most revealing in its presentation of Gerbier. He has traveled to London for a brief respite and regroup. While walking the nighttime streets, he comes under part of a Nazi bombing raid and steals away into a youth dancehall. There he encounters revelry, sex appeal and genuine contentment, and he couldn't be any more befuddled by it. His quizzical disposition seems to ask, "How can you conduct yourselves in such an escapist manner when the world abroad is collapsing without heed?" He looks around the room anxiously, but only falls deeper into confusion. His passion was not theirs nor was his resolve, and, as the searing close of "Army of Shadows" highlights, few were cut out for such a trade.

Grade: 4 out of 5.