Michèle Bernard-Requin, the judge in ''10th District Court," Raymond Depardon's engrossing French documentary, has a difficult, frustrating, and entirely unenviable job. From the bench in her Paris courtroom, she arbitrates minor cases -- harassing phone calls, drunk driving, weapons possession -- that have larger social implications. One camera is perched squarely before her bench. Another peers up at the women and men who address her.
Depardon's format, which evokes Frederick Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall approach to documentary, is rather simple. We watch selections from a handful of cases that come before the judge, a few per day, about one day a week throughout May and June in 2003. She lays out the facts. They attempt to clarify. A conversation ensues. The prosecutor speaks. The defense rebuts, though not always in the form of an actual counterargument. All sides deliberate. The judge delivers her verdict.
The first case we see involves a driver who had a high blood-alcohol level. He tells the judge all he had to drink was a mojito. ''That must have been some mojito," she says. In the case that follows, a construction worker has been brought up on charges of rudeness. (He called a pair of traffic cops ''bitches.") One of the offended women wants 200 euros in damages. The judge grants it.
A week later the cases are direr: another drunk driver and a man accused of carrying an unlicensed shotgun. By the time these two roll around, someone unfamiliar with the French courts becomes more acclimated to the proceedings and can't help asking some serious questions. Why, for one thing, don't the defense lawyers do more defending? Granted, a few of these cases sound indefensible. (Frankly, everybody seems guilty. But still.)
The lawyer of a clean-cut man accused of making harassing phone calls actually winds up making an argument for the man's victim, an ex-girlfriend who tells a ghastly story of domestic abuse. His calls are the tip of a dismaying iceberg that the defense lawyer visibly struggles to wrap his brain around in his comments. The lawyer for the shotgun carrier, who admittedly is a little off, all but throws up her hands. She makes an emotional appeal to judge, saying that he needs medical help and that's about it. The prosecution in every case is always more convincing and even more passionate. (They have, well, conviction.)
At times it seems it seems like Bernard-Requin is handing out Xeroxes of the same lenient, anticlimactic sentence. Meager fines and suspended licenses for everybody! But this is trying work. And she proves indefatigable, deciding cases until the wee hours of the morning.
''10th District Court" fascinates less as a legal experience (although I'd love to watch this movie through a lawyer's eyes) and more as an ethnographic one. Many varieties of French people are here: natives; immigrants; a knife-carrying sociologist; a young, drug-dealing punk; and so on. And Bernard-Requin handles almost everyone with uncommon patience. (The cool sociologist does raise her mercury level in a theatrical exchange.)
Initially, in Bernard-Requin we think we have a regular Judge Judy: wry and emphatically intolerant of nonsense. But she's a better listener, and, occasionally, there's humanity in her retorts. Moreover, Bernard-Requin doesn't flagellate people with the law, regardless of how severe she might come off. The judge wears a pageboy and a sternly seasoned expression that in moments of exasperation turns into a tight smile, warm and sometimes haughty. It's like she's hearing a bad joke at a cocktail party and all she can do is laugh. Presumably to keep from crying.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.