``Wings of Desire'' has an unusual hero: His name is Damiel, and he's a guardian angel. Damiel's territory is the city of Berlin. When we first meet him, he's complete with wings, armor, and the ability to fly unseen through the human world, giving silent comfort to people in their hours of need.
Damiel cares deeply about people. In fact, he loves humans so much that his secret ambition is to become one of them. He dreams of sharing what he imagines are delightful earthly experiences - like tasting mustard, seeing purple, and having ink from the newspaper come off on your fingers.
A serious-minded angel named Cassiel does his best to discourage the whole idea. Damiel makes up his mind, though, when he falls in love with a woman - who does her own kind of flying as a trapeze artist in a traveling circus.
``Wings of Desire'' won the ``best director'' prize for its maker, West German director Wim Wenders, at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
It's a remarkable picture in several ways. For one, its visual style is amazingly graceful, especially when the camera swoops and glides through Berlin as if it had angel wings of its own. The cinematography, by French veteran Henri Alekan, is full of rich textures and elegant movements in its black-and-white sections (when Damiel is still angelic) and when it slides into full color.
Yet the filmmakers have not neglected the verbal aspects of their story. ``Wings of Desire'' has a ripely poetic screenplay, whether we're hearing the thoughtful conversations of Damiel and Cassiel, or listening in on the poignant thoughts of troubled human beings in need of their comfort. Credit goes partly to playwright and novelist Peter Handke, who worked on the screenplay with Wenders.
``Wings of Desire'' is also a very funny picture. One of its characters turns out to be actor Peter Falk - played, logically, by actor Peter Falk. He's in Berlin to make a movie, and somehow he always seems to know when Damiel is hovering invisibly nearby. Falk's character is marvelous, full of warm observations about the delights of simple everyday life.
``Wings of Desire'' has some flaws. Its monologues and dialogues become tiring after a while, and if you don't know German, the subtitles may seem relentless - except during Falk's scenes, when the movie switches conveniently into English.
Some spectators may also squirm at the film's unusual structure. The first half has no plot; it simply follows Damiel on his rounds, giving an angel's-eye view of Berlin and its inhabitants.
Even the love-story aspect of the film is handled unconventionally. Once the angel and his new girlfriend declare their love for each other, in a daringly long and entirely verbal scene, the movie abruptly ends - exactly when most romantic films would just be getting under way.
But there may be more to come in Damiel's tale. The movie finishes with the words ``to be continued,'' indicating that filmmaker Wenders would like to explore further developments in this charming fantasy. I, for one, can't wait.