Sunday, December 29, 2013

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Director: Robert Bresson                               Writer: Robert Bresson
Film Score: Jean-Jacques Grünenwald           Cinematography: Léonce-Henri Burel
Starring: Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyere, Rachel Bérendt and Nicole Maurey

There’s something both hyper-realistic and at the same time highly stylized about early French Films. I suppose that it’s the combination of the natural sets, especially the exteriors, with the dubbed dialogue and very consciously composed shot selections that give it this split personality. Diary of a Country Priest by the great Robert Bresson is no exception. Bresson is thought of as the father of the French New Wave, not that it was his style, per se, but his films were certainly influential in the direction they predicted, not only in the way they are filmed but also with their specific use of non-actors. Bresson’s screenplay is based on the epistolary novel by Georges Bernanos, and he keeps much of the flavor of the book by using a lot of voice-over narration by his star, Claude Laydu, as well as connecting scenes with the written diary itself.

The story concerns a young priest who is assigned the curate of Ambricourt. As this is his first assignment he naturally feels out of his depth, that the people don’t respect him, and a natural reluctance as a newcomer to challenge them. He frequently relies on the advice of a neighboring curate, Adrien Borel, who has little sympathy for him and whose advice consists mostly of telling him to make his own mistakes and learn from them. All alone in the church, he begins to question his faith, wondering if he’s lost it while at the same time desperately trying to convince himself that he hasn’t. What he finds is that he has become the angel of death. The people he seeks out, the doctor to help him with his physical sickness, the woman he tries to help who has lost her son, all end up dying. It’s a harrowing reality for a priest.

At first glance this would appear to be a film about religion and the loss of faith, but it seems much more primal than that. It feels more like an exploration of what it means to be human and how the religious overlay does nothing in the end to answer the most basic questions of humanity. Bresson does a nice job with the camera as well as his sets. The land is desolate, the roads muddy and the atmosphere stark. It aptly symbolizes the inner world of emptiness that Laydu experiences. The film is a quiet one and, in the French tradition, a small and intimate one, full of reflection and philosophy. And what it might lack in visual power, it more than makes up for in the way that it pulls the viewer into the world that Bresson creates. His later films might be more innovative, but none seem more emotionally naked than this.

In his essay in The A List, Henry Sheehan focuses on Bresson’s artistic qualities, how critics have talked about a flatness, a one-dimensionality to this work that he doesn’t quite have the courage to contradict. There is a Christ-like association with the priest that Sheehan touches on but doesn’t really seem to understand. It’s not that the Laydu is both in the world and of the world, they are actually one and the same. He is right on, however, when he points out the lack of outward emotion, of gesticulation and melodrama. The drama is there, but it is internalized, as it should be. For an audience immersed in reality TV, this might be a difficult thing to understand, but our disappointments in art sometimes only reveals a flaw within ourselves. The priest cannot pray and so the diary becomes his prayer, and in the end we share more with him than his cassock and collar separate him from us. Diary of a Country Priest, like so many European films, is a lot more artistic than their American counterparts with their entertainment imperatives often deliver. It’s not my favorite of Bresson’s work, but it is a great film nonetheless.

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