The French are among the least noticed and celebrated of the contributors to what has become the United States. But at one time New France covered a good part of North America. The two most interesting provinces on the continent, Quebec and Louisiana, are remnants of that empire. Huguenot refugees contributed talents to the British colonies far out of proportion to their numbers.

When the 13 colonies confirmed their independence at Yorktown, there were more French than American soldiers present and a French fleet on the coast. But soon a promising alliance ended when the French got up to mischief with guillotines and military emperors, giving our Northeastern elite the excuse to return to their natural Anglophilia. When, more than a century later. General Pershing landed in Europe and declared “Lafayette, we are here,” it was a nice touch. But everybody knew we had come to save the Brits and not the Frogs.

Those of us, that is Chronicles readers, who are interested in tradition, regionalism, preserving authentic rooted cultures and know that “small is beautiful,” can learn something from the French. Despite their highly centralized government and a streak of avant-gardism, the French remain the most tenaciously regionalist, traditionalist, and culturally conservative of Europeans, and many retain a strongly rooted Catholic faith.

The best way to learn this, other than a long sojourn, is from their film. The French are the best filmmakers in the world. (The Germans are the worst, their film reflecting the brutish nihilism of their language, philosophers, and history.) And for French film the best place to start is with the rich heritage of Provence. The popular book and television series “A Year in Provence” was full of insider references to previous triumphs of Provencal filmmaking dating back to the I930’s. The episode about the runaway baker’s wife harked back to Marcel Pagnol’s wonderful 1938 movie, The Bakers Wife.

Pagnol, a novelist as well as a screenwriter and director, created a Provencal world that raises the movies to the level of literature. Though he died in 1974, his legacy is still working. Pagnol’s stories were the basis for two marvelous pairs of recent films: Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring (1987); and My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle (1991).

Provence and neighboring Languedoc were the original home of the medieval troubadour and thus the source of the great Western invention—romantic love. Despite the mild Mediterranean climate, which is responsible for such fleshpots as Cannes, Nice, and Monaco, most of Provence is rugged and not well watered. In pastoral and agricultural times it provided what Arnold Toynbee would call an optimum challenge for those who had to live off the land. The need for human ingenuity and endurance and the moral conflicts that come with the struggle for survival made for prime literary territory, like Ireland or Mississippi. (This also has something to do with why Aries, in Provence, has attracted more great painters than any other spot on earth.)

Among the strengths of Pagnol’s stories are a long time perspective—generations rather than a weekend; a sense of real people in real places. There is tragedy and evil but in a context that affirms family, community, decency, and a Christian civilization. Not much more can be asked of film.

Interestingly, Pagnol’s first work was urban. The trilogy Marius, Fanny, and Cesar (1929-36), although based on Marseilles, has all the Christian virtues of his moral stories. The trilogy formed the basis for the American musical Fanny, an adaptation that had little to recommend it other than Leslie Caron’s legs. Among other titles either written or directed by Pagnol are Harvest (1937), The Well-Diner’s Daughter (1941), and Letters from My Windmill (19 54). At this late stage of the millennium and Western culture, this body of art remains a solid consolation to those who care to see.