CLAUDE BERRI's "Jean de Florette" gives itself epic scope. Man tussles with fellow man; nature and time tower above. The first in a two-volume release (the second, "Manon of the Springs," is due out later this year), "Jean" follows a tragedy that compounds over three generations in rural France. This movie takes its sweet time; for those of us weaned on news bites and Budweiser commercials, the pace might seem glacial at times. You may also become permanently sick of goats. But after "Jean," a rich residue of themes and images remains -- much as after reading a long but great novel or Greek tragedy.

Actually, beneath the sylvan trappings is a whodunit as riveting as any. The "gangsters" are peasants, the mean streets the country roads of Provence in 1920s Southern France. The story's major crime is more subtle than machine-gun murder, but more pervasive: Two men block a stream that supplies water to a farmer's land and livelihood.

Berri's adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's two-part novel "L'Eau des Collines" is also a multilayered mull -- over neighborly debts, vendettas, Catholicism, unrequited love and the passing of time, among many others. Lead players Yves Montand, Daniel Auteil and Ge'rard Depardieu throw themselves into the act with theatrical zeal. In front of the cold-eyed camera, this is often a mistake, but against Berri's luscious epic sweep and cinematographer Bruno ("The Name of the Rose") Nuytten's sunsplashed landscapes, the performances work.

Montand is Ce'sar Soubeyran, crusty guardian of his family's lore anxious to continue the lineage through his nephew Ugolin. Auteil is magnificently gormless as Ugolin, but his bumpkin has a certain rural nobility. And Depardieu, with trademark broken-nose sensitivity, plays Jean de Florette -- a hunchbacked taxman who resettles in the country.

The Soubeyrans covet their neighbor's land for its natural spring -- essential for Ugolin's carnation-growing project. When the owner accidentally dies (in a rather clumsily staged fight with Ce'sar), Jean de Florette inherits the land. Arriving with his wife and young daughter Manon, the city slicker is determined to cultivate the land with almanacs and "providence." But the Soubeyrans have secretly plugged his stream, and the summer brings little rain. Meanwhile they pretend to support his efforts.

The villagers and de Florette's daughter Manon are very much aware of the Soubeyrans' agenda. But the villagers keep their thoughts to themselves, and Manon is too young. There will be ramifications to this "crime" that occur in the subsequent "Manon" with shocking results, but "Jean" stands, nonetheless, on its own.

JEAN DE FLORETTE (Unrated; in French with subtitles) -- At the Key.