Termites are eating the wooden crosses on the altar in the Catholic Church of Bourkassa Ourbangi. It is 1938. Black citizens are treated disdainfully by the French who live there. And Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret), the colonial policeman responsible for law and order in this small African town, is weighed down with woe.
His voluptuous wife (Stephane Audran) thinks he's a "zero"" and cavorts with her live-in brother (Eddy Mitchell). A local pimp (Jean-Pierre Marielle) breaks the law and humiliates the policeman whenever he can. Cordier travels to the next town and reports these incidents to his bigoted superior (Guy Marchand). He is ordered to take control of Bourkassa Ourbangi and to stop letting people push him around.
Clean Slate was France's entry for the Academy Award in the "Best Foreign Film" category in 1982. Director Tavernier (The Clockmaster, Let Joy Reign Supreme) has made Jim Thompson's novel into an off-beat morality play.
Cordier returns to town all charged up. He's accompanied by Anne (Ireme Skobline), the new schoolteacher. Soon the stumbleton transformed into a savior gets rid of two pimps and the wife-beating husband (Victor Garrivier) of his mistress Rose (Isabelle Huppert). She becomes Mary Magdalene to him while Anne serves as his confessor. Cordier's unfaithful wife and his brother-in-law are designated as his next sacrifices needed to redeem the town.
Shot entirely on location in Senegal, Clean Slate has a laser-sharp intensity. Everyone in the film seems as restless as a cat on a hot tin roof. Philippe Noiret is superb as the dispenser of justice who goes off the deep end. Good and evil are rusty tools but they're still the best ones we've got to explain the human condition.