French peasant Martin Guerre returned to his wife Bertrande after an absence of nine years in 1557. His trial three years later was something of a Renaissance version of "To Tell the Truth." And for four centuries, the French have waited for the real Martin Guerre to stand up. They've explored the great impostor's tale in two novels, a play, an operetta and now a tantalizing film.

"The Return of Martin Guerre" is courtroom drama, mystery and Brueghelian idyll; an organic, earthy work; a purposeful reflection of Flemish canvases set in a village 60 miles from Guerre's native Artigat. "Arrest Memorable," by the magistrate who presided over his trial, was a 16th-century best-seller and one source of this romantic, but tragic film, winner of three C,esars for screenplay, music and set design.

The stars, G,erard Depardieu as Guerre and Nathalie Baye as his wife Bertrande, seem reincarnated as the 16th-century lovers. Depardieu makes a sweaty, hardy peasant and a loving, magnetic family man. Baye's Bertrande smolders like banked coals. But we can't see it in her face, guileless as a nun's.

Guerre, back from the war against Flanders, is welcomed like the prodigal son. He's a better man for soldiering -- taller, stronger, a willing farmer, a willing lover. He and Bertrande have another child; the harvest is bountiful. The women stamp grapes into wine, wiping their stained legs on soiled aprons. All's well till Guerre asks his uncle for his share of family money and farmland. Suddenly two strangers arrive to say Guerre is not Guerre but a man called Pansette. Shortly afterward, his uncle has him arrested and tried.

The film -- fact, fiction and folk story -- illumines a boisterous, brutal, beautiful France. Princeton historian Natalie Davis helped recreate the customs, manners, family structures and taboos. Michel Portal's music is portentous, dire and as pagan as the people.

The dialogue, written by director Daniel Vigne and Jean-Claude Carriere, is subtitled. But for those with even a smattering of French, the subtitles are often unnecessary. The actors speak without accents, says Carriere, who added some regional phrasing and archaic language for tone.

Adultery, revenge and the law are overt themes. But most of all, Vigne and Carriere seem still to be asking whether the real Martin Guerre ever really stood up. THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE -- At the Outer Circle. graphics/1 photo: Nathalie Baye and Gerard Depardieu in "The Return of Martin Guerre."