Dr Bernard Rieux (William Hurt) says good-bye to his ailing wife at the Oran airport in South America. Their only child is dead. She has gone to the distant capital for tests and he plans to join her in a few days. But a mysterious epidemic of rats and what turns out to be bubonic plague breaks out. The city is sealed by draconian authorities who separate family members and drag people from their homes. Rieux decides to stay; months pass and his wife will die before he can see her again.

He befriends two stranded French journalists, Martine (Sandrine Bonnaire) and Tanto (Jean-Marc Harr), who volunteer as aides. They visit Joseph Grand (Robert Duvall) who keeps the cemetery statistics and writes an interminable novel. Tanto and Grand contract the disease but manage to survive under Rieux's care.

Constantly palpating her body in fear, Martine is desperate to flee, even as she strives to evoke passion from the emotionally numb Rieux. She is robbed and incarcerated by Cottard (Raul Julia) an unscrupulous profiteer. As the epidemic wanes, the journalists, the doctor, and Grand are reunited, but in that same instant Cottard shoots Tanto dead. Rieux and Martine are left sobbing in each others arms.


An interesting but stilted production, both enhanced and spoiled by the attempts to keep it accessible to viewers in several different countries. For example, the South American setting with Art-Deco-ish overtones and liturgical music lend it the haunting timelessness of the acclaimed film, "Brasil"; however, dubbing and lip-synching erode pathos in the tormented death of a choirboy.

Emotions--suppressed, triggered, or endured--are a prominent theme. A priest chides his sinful parishioners for causing plague, but the death of the innocent choirboy shows him his error and he commits suicide.

As Rieux, Hurt is wooden (perhaps appropriately). He stayed in Oran, he tells Martine, because he is a doctor. If you were a man, she replies, you would have gone to your wife. Grand is fascinated by the concept of nostalgia, which he believes he has never felt; but he longs for the missing Martine.

Cottard begins his shooting spree, angry, he says, because people foolishly continue to hope, refusing to learn that the plague will always return. As Camus's novel metaphorically addressed the French experience of war, this film relates the plague and its control to political disappearances in Argentina.


In English, with a mix of French and Spanish, subtitles and dubbing. Based on the novel by Albert Camus.

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