Seeking shelter from a driving rain, a priest and a peasant huddle under Kyoto's dilapidated Rashomon Gate. They shake their heads in bewilderment at a mystery that cannot easily be solved in 11th century Japan, where feudal wars have left Kyoto - and the truth - in ruins. A woodcutter, who claims to have witnessed a rape and a murder in the woods, joins the pair to talk about what occurred.

So begins Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, the essential 1951 film that considers the ravishment of a noblewoman by a cunning bandit and the subsequent death of her husband, a proud samurai, in flashback, from four contradictory perspectives.

The flashbacks take place in the sun-dappled woods, as shadow-ridden and primal as those in a fairy tale. (In his memoirs, Kurosawa described these woods as a place where "the human heart loses its way.") Each testimony - that of victim, bandit, woodcutter, and spirit of the dead samurai, who communicates through a medium - is different. Which is the truth?

Did the wife respond to the bandit's advances and the samurai take his own life in shame? After the rape, was the husband so frosty to his wife (Machiko Kyo, a tempest of flowing hair and robes) that she killed him? Or did the bandit (Toshiro Mifune, muscular and feral) kill the samurai because he wanted the wife? And what did the woodcutter see and when did he see it?

Kurosawa's nimble camera brings the audience inside the skin of the participants and witness whose narratives are puzzle-pieces that do not fit together. (The film has lent its name to the Rashomon effect, a description of multiple testimonies that offer contradictory, but equally plausible, "realities.")

In this extraordinary film, point of view is everything, truth is elusive and memory unreliable. What Kurosawa implies in this haunting film is that in the retelling, inevitably every man will make himself out to be the hero or villain of the story.EndText

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl.