In an era when most features are too long, and some directors seem incapable of telling the most ordinary stories at less than 2 1/2 hours, it's a delight to find a movie that actually benefits from its length. Clocking in at a tick under three hours, Dimos Avdeliodis' third feature, "The Four Seasons of the Law," is a wry comedy of rural life that does double duty as an examination of the Greek character and its sly transgression of authority.

In an era when most features are too long, and some directors seem incapable of telling the most ordinary stories at less than 2 1/2 hours, it’s a delight to find a movie that actually benefits from its length. Clocking in at a tick under three hours, Dimos Avdeliodis’ third feature, “The Four Seasons of the Law,” is a wry comedy of rural life that does double duty as an examination of the Greek character and its sly transgression of authority, especially during some of the more drastic developments of the past 40 years. Hardly destined to set wickets whirring, by dint of its length, provenance and unflashy approach, this original, extremely clever movie nevertheless looks destined for exposure at major fests in the coming months, with limited upscale distribution possible in the wake of favorable reviews.

Divided into four (untitled) sections, shot by different cameramen, pic starts in the blazing heat of summer with the sudden death of a rural guard in the tiny community of Tholopotami while chasing someone pilfering produce. (A Greek specialty, rural guards are kind of agri-cops, policing the fields and hedgerows.) Tholopotami has a bad reputation among rural guards, and no one from the region’s administration in Kalamoti, led by a stern police chief (Ilias Petropouleas), wants the job.

When Tholopotami’s council offers a financial incentive, four guards apply for the chore, and the first (Takis Agoris) sets off on his motorcycle, with his dog and vintage rifle. After the locals have punctured his tires, he spends most of the time asleep under a tree, and the villagers go out of their way to make him comfy by bringing him food. Then one day he spots something strange, runs after it, and ends up stung by bees. Rains announce the arrival of autumn.

At this stage, some 50 minutes in, the movie has shaped up as a gentle comedy of country life with a slightly allegorical edge, pleasantly nudged along by extracts from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” It’s only when the second section starts that Avdeliodis’ larger plan comes into view.

The next guard (Yannis Tsoubariotis), mustachioed and eagle-eyed, is a completely different kettle of fish, taking his job seriously, always on the move with a loaded gun, and playing everything by the book. After arresting some school kids for stealing an orange, he forces them to march back to the village — and is promptly fired for his over-zealousness. That night in a bar, the villagers silently sideline him when he gets drunk. Then next day, while chasing after a mysterious, tomboyish girl, he falls into a pool and disappears.

The third guard (Stelios Makrias) is the opposite again — friendly, reconciliatory (“We’ll see,” mutters the local barman). But after joining an after-hours card game organized by a group of villagers, he ends up financially wiped out and arrested by the police for illicit gambling.

It’s clear by now that Avdeliodis’ movie, apart from being a low-key, almost Ealingesque portrait of a community bound to its way of life, is also a subtle allegory for the country’s recent history and the passive-aggressiveness in the adaptable Greek character.

Though, per production notes, pic is set in 1960, the three sections can also be read as a commentary on the country’s passage from the sleepy, traditional ’50s, through the dictatorial rule of the military junta during the late ’60s and early ’70s, to the suspicious reconciliation between people and state thereafter.

Final seg, clearly paralleling Greece’s modern evolution, has the fourth applicant, a young guy in his 20s, taking over the job. Warned by the ghost of the original rural guard not to “succumb,” he ends up pursuing the mysterious female thief (Angeliki Malandi) who has entranced his predecessors. A magical ending moves pic into the realm of pure allegory.

Shot on the helmer’s home isle of Chios, the picture (which unspooled at the Thessaloniki fest under its initial English title, “The Spring Gathering”) evinces a real feel for its location and types without forcing stereotypes on its audience.

“The Four Seasons” won the prize for best director in the State Film Awards. Perfs are natural with a sly wink, and blowup from Super-16 is OK, if slightly grainy. Vivaldi’s music, though an obvious choice, enhances the pic’s momentum, as does the mobile editing. And at almost three hours, it’s just right.

The Four Seasons of the Law

Greek

Production

A Greek Film Center/ET-1 production. (International sales: Greek Film Center, Athens.) Produced, directed, written by Dimos Avdeliodis.

Crew

Camera (color), Odysseas Pavlopoulos ("Summer"), Alekos Yannaros ("Autumn"), Linos Meytanis ("Winter"), Sotiris Perreas ("Spring"); editor, Kostas Iordanidis; music, excerpts from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons"; art director, Nikos Hatzis; costumes, Anna Karamousli; sound (Dolby SR), Andonis Samaras, Kostas Varibopiotis. Reviewed at Thessaloniki Film Festival (Greek Film Festival), Nov. 17, 1999. Running time: 177 MIN.

With

Elisso - Angeliki Malandi Rural Guard ("Summer") - Takis Agoris Rural Guard ("Autumn") - Yannis Tsoubariotis Rural Guard ("Winter") - Stelios Makrias Rural Guard ("Spring") - Angelos Pandelaras Dead Rural Guard - Panayotis Louros Agrarian Police Chief - Ilias Petropouleas Gambler - Markellos Poupalos
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