There are entire generations of filmgoers not fortunate to have seen one of the most beautiful women in the world in her prime, on the big screen. So the restoration and rerelease of "Tristana" would be welcome just for offering us the experience of seeing the larger-than-life Catherine Deneuve the way she was meant to be seen.

But the late Luis Bunuel's fourth-last film is worth watching for more than the beauty of its star. The 1970 film might not be his best work, but it's a haunting piece of art and one that delves deeply into many of his obsessions.

Bunuel began his career in 1929, directing the surrealist short "Un Chien Andalou," which he wrote with his friend Salvador Dali. "Tristana" is not a surrealist film; it instead portrays all too fiercely the realities of corruption, hypocrisy and the power people can wield over one another -- and usually not for good.

On screen
3 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Franco Nero
» Director: Luis Bunuel
» Rated: PG
» Running time: 95 minutes

Deneuve reteamed with Bunuel three years after their triumph with "Belle de Jour." In this adaptation of Benito Perez Galdos' 1892 novel, Deneuve plays a character rather more innocent. Tristana is left an orphan in Toledo, Spain, when her beloved mother dies. A local nobleman, Don Lope (Fernando Rey), has promised to take care of the girl. But it isn't long before the inveterate womanizer makes his daughter his lover. Something of her stolen innocence remains, though, though she endures the old man's perverse attentions for years.

It's only when she meets the artist Horacio (Franco Nero) that she begins to think of escape. He recognizes her rare beauty immediately and wants to paint a portrait of her. As Tristana confesses to the housekeeper, "I said yes to everything. I couldn't take my eyes off him." It's a dangerous relationship -- Don Lope doesn't actually allow her to leave his house. "If you want an honest woman, break her leg and keep her home" is his philosophy.

Tristana soon plans an escape. But can she ever leave the dominating Don Lope? The answer is found in some words Horacio utters when Tristana says she wants to run away with him but not marry him. "You remind me of that scoundrel. You talk like him."

"Tristana," as we might expect from Bunuel, deals with the big issues: religion, capitalism, power, freedom. Don Lope is an odd duck, a well-regarded do-gooder who would rather sell his silver than work but refuses to take a generous offer for that silver. With such intense themes dramatized by such curious people, it's no wonder "Tristana" was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

It's hard to imagine this almost-melodrama as a success without its star, though. Deneuve is achingly beautiful. And what's more interesting is how she uses her beauty to show the shifts in her character. After Don Lope has taken advantage of her, she immediately looks less like a girl and more like a woman. The transformation continues as Tristana herself transforms. The film takes place over many years, and the slight aging of Tristana is completely believable. (The French Deneuve and the Italian Nero, however, have had their voices dubbed. It's not much of a distraction.)

As Tristana begins to understand what Don Lope has done to her, she finally loses her innocence for good. "Be careful," a character tells her. "There's something diabolical about that bitterness." How an innocent can become a devil is just one of the many wondrous things Bunuel in his genius shows us.