It seems hard to remember a time when Jean-Luc Godard was the most important filmmaker in the world -- when he was Dylan, Derrida, and Lars von Trier rolled into one and young film fanatics awaited each of his movies like a bulletin from God. Godard disproved his own existence in the 1970s and '80s, disappearing up his own auteur theory with abstruse cinematic laments (the best-known, ''Hail Mary," merely brought out the religious protesters). Audiences moved on to less cerebral, less challenging directors. Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman have been celebrated to the very end, but Godard sailed off the edge of the map long ago.
He's still there, of course, teaching and filming in Switzerland with wife and collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, a ghostly presence who serves as a rebuke to our easygoing movie ways. And with ''Notre Musique," he has tentatively rejoined the world while delivering an intensely felt, quietly beautiful elegy to 20th-century Europe -- to the Europe of wars -- and to the human need to create enemies.
More poetic essay than movie, ''Notre Musique" is divided into three Dantean parts: ''Hell," ''Purgatory," and ''Heaven." The first and third segments are 10 minutes long each, and they bracket a long midsection set in Europe's own purgatory, Sarajevo. There a disparate group of foreigners has gathered for a literary conference as well as a larger coming to terms: a young French-Israeli journalist (Sarah Adler), a Palestinian poet (Mahmoud Darwish, playing himself), a Spanish novelist (Juan Goytisolo), an aging enfant terrible film director (Godard), a Jewish-Egyptian translator (Romy Kramer), a French diplomat (Jean-Christophe Bouvet).
We hear the thoughts and conversations of all these characters, but the journalist is the key, and her investigation takes us deep into the nature of war, history, national identity, and the Other that people keep re-inventing so as to kill it. This is a movie made in the shadow of conflicts from World War I to Iraq. At one point Godard passes around a photo of bombed-out buildings and asks students to identify the location. Berlin? Stalingrad? Sarajevo? No, Richmond, Va., during the Civil War. No matter the cause; the result is the same.
Sarajevo -- starting point of the Great War and end point of 20th-century genocide -- is the movie's governing metaphor, and it's a hopeful one: scarred but healing, with a cosmopolitan and wise populace that fully comprehends the idiocy of aggression. ''Killing a man to defend an idea isn't defending an idea," says a cab driver. ''It's killing a man."
''Notre Musique" is full of maxims like that -- I could spend the rest of the review quoting the thought bombs that pepper the script and provide the movie's most lasting pleasure. Most take place at the intersection of the West and the Third World, of conquest and defeat -- what Godard, viewing everything through the lens of the movies, describes as ''shot and reverse shot" (and he uses stills of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in ''His Girl Friday" to illustrate the point). The poet muses that Palestinians are famous only because Israel is their enemy: ''The interest is you, not us," he tells the Israeli journalist. ''You've brought us defeat and renown."
Sometimes Godard overreaches: The American Indians who wander through the conference, bemoaning everything since Columbus, are a trite device, but this director has always been attracted to Rousseau-esque innocence, so let it slide. ''Notre Musique" is, in the end, about the future. It's a future Godard can't know -- he pointedly doesn't answer a question about digital film -- but the rebuilding of the Mostar bridge is a sign of hope: Built in 1566, it linked Bosnia's ethnic groups until it was bombed in 1993. Now it reconnects one side to the Other.
The film's Sarajevo, Godard's ''Purgatory," is his own bridge. It leads to his ''Heaven," a leafy sanctuary guarded by US Marines. His opening ''Hell," by contrast, is a nearly unwatchable barrage of war imagery, both real and from fictional films, and it raises the questions of which we're meant to be horrified by, which we're meant to be entertained by, and what defines the difference.
This elegant, insistent movie -- a great gray filmmaker's finest in years -- helps define the difference.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.