“What is it about Americans, guns and violence?” filmmaker Michael Moore asks in his provocative documentary, “Bowling for Columbine.” Are Americans homicidal by nature? Why do 11, 000 Americans die each year at the hand of guns? Why is this unique to the United States? Questions like these drive Moore’s biting but hilarious film, and he refuses to accept the typical answers.

“Bowling for Columbine” is an incredibly important American film that has received international attention. It’s been 46 years since a documentary has even competed for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; this year, “Bowling for Columbine” won the coveted 55th Anniversary Prize.

“Bowling for Columbine” is not a movie about gun control. It is a cinematic essay that uses the Columbine High School shootings as a springboard to discuss America’s bloodlust.

In “Bowling for Columbine,” Moore (“Roger & Me,” “The Big One”) travels across the country capturing varying opinions on the issue. He visits Flint, Mich. (home of Oklahoma City bomber conspirators); Littleton, Colo. (location of Columbine High School); Virgin, Utah (where the law states that all citizens must own guns); and even handgun-free Canada.

Moore interviews a wide range of weapon nuts. He captures James Nichols — brother of Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols — claiming that “the pen is mightier than the sword, but you should keep a gun handy should the pen fail.” He finds Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, at a gun convention waving a rifle over his head, yelling: “From my cold dead hands!” Moore then ambushes Heston at his posh Beverly Hills estate (where, we discover, Moses posters line the walls).

Throughout, Moore mixes footage of stock newsreels, gun-dealing advertisements, and even excerpts from “South Park.” The juxtapositions are hilarious. But Moore is at his best when he probes his subjects with questions and then lets them speak for themselves.

Is Moore objective? Not at all. He is a card-carrying member of the NRA — and he includes home videos of himself playing with his first gun, the Sound-O-Power. But Moore vehemently jabs at the NRA, the federal government, and the media for its influence on what he calls America’s “culture of fear.”

Though tongue-in-cheek in tone, “Bowling” is not just a caustic look at American culture; the film earnestly seeks an answer to the questions it poses and is often heartbreaking. Perhaps the film’s most moving footage is taken from surveillance cameras inside Columbine High School on the day killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fatally shot 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives. Following this excerpt, a staticky emergency police tape, recorded that day, plays over as Moore pans through the school’s empty hallways.

As easily as it evokes laughter, “Bowling” can quickly turn tragic. In one scene, Moore interviews a citizen of Littleton who describes how, following the shootings, people began installing security gates in their suburban homes. Though the scene’s initial tone is mocking, it quickly sobers. The grown man begins crying and turns away from the camera, saying, “there’s something overwhelming about that kind of viciousness.”

The film raises provocative questions. But as Moore desperately searches for answers, he only ends up asking more questions and widening his focus. He covers a lot of ground, but one wishes Moore would probe deeper and try to answer his questions with as much rigor as he asks them.

Still, few filmmakers can combine such terrifying footage and witty commentary as successfully as Moore does. He deserves credit not only for his skill but for his temerity.