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TCM Imports - December 2013
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Remind Me

Diary of a Country Priest

Movies about religion have never been very fashionable, and even well-known films like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) are famous largely for the controversies they caused. The great French director Robert Bresson was one of the few filmmakers to deal with religion frequently, starting with his 1943 debut film, Les Anges du péché, and continuing with The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), among other films. Diary of a Country Priest, based on the 1936 novel by French author Georges Bernanos, was his third feature (released in 1951) and the first to present his unique approach to cinema in its mature form. It has also been a highly influential film, inspiring later works as different as Ingmar Bergman's stark Winter Light (1963) and Scorsese's violent Taxi Driver (1976).

Diary of a Country Priest centers on a young cleric assigned to the rural parish of Ambricourt, where his acquaintances include unfortunate peasants, troublemaking children, a suicidal physician, a supercilious count, a countess perpetually mourning her dead son, and a down-to-earth older priest in Torcy, a neighboring district. Straight out of the seminary and eager to succeed, the young priest (never named) pedals around the countryside on his bicycle, visiting parishioners, consulting with his colleague in Torcy, soliciting money from the count for a community project, coping with stomach pains that appear to be growing worse, and doing his best to fend off suspicions that he's nothing but a meddling outsider who doesn't understand the parish or its citizens. His belief in God is firm, but his belief in himself is shaky, and he comes to think he'll never be an adequate priest. Increasingly concerned about his ailing stomach, he mortifies his flesh by eating only bread soaked in wine - a daily reminder of the bread and wine of holy communion, but disastrous for his already uncertain health. A cancer diagnosis helps explain his physical and psychological decline, but his spirituality somehow endures. The final scene informs us of his death and his last words: "All is grace."

The first step in watching a Bresson film is adjusting to his unusual artistic wavelength. Critics often use the word "austerity" to describe the overall effect of his movies, just as they use "humanism" to sum up Jean Renoir and "anarchy" to evoke Jean Vigo's boisterous films. "Austerity" is shorthand for Bresson's habit of omitting every image, gesture, word, and sound that isn't absolutely essential to the experience he wants to convey; his works are streamlined and precise, dodging every opportunity for show-offy acting or fancy camerawork. What's miraculous about them is how cinematically rich and sophisticated they are despite their pared-down style, thanks to his inexhaustible talent for blending sight, sound, narrative, and atmosphere into delicate and harmonious wholes. Bresson belongs to the select group of directors - Orson Welles, Yasujiro Ozu, and Josef von Sternberg are among the others - with a touch so personal and distinctive that it's recognizable at a glance, whatever the subject or setting of the story.

Bresson made some of his most far-reaching innovations in the field of acting. In his earliest films he used trained professionals, but starting with Diary of a Country Priest he preferred to hire nonprofessionals, on the theory that trained actors are good at pretending and "seeming," while carefully chosen nonactors - or "models," to use Bresson's term - are good at simply "being" in authentic, unadulterated ways. Claude Laydu was a theater actor with little experience when Bresson asked him to play the country priest, and both of them worked hard to eliminate all traces of theatricality from the performance; similarly, the priest of Torcy is played by a prominent French psychiatrist (under a pseudonym) who had never acted before and never did again. Here as in Bresson's subsequent films, the idea was to go beyond character psychology and tap directly into the existential reality of the person in front of the camera.

For moviegoers new to Bresson's work, this takes some getting used to, and in some films - the Dostoevskian drama Pickpocket (1959), for instance - he pushes the technique so far that it's hard for many people to identify with the protagonist at all. Laydu is absolutely perfect as the priest of Ambricourt, however, embodying the character's humanity with a freshness and naturalness that grow in power with every viewing. As the legendary French critic André Bazin wrote, Bresson wanted to capture the most physical and material aspects of the human face, "which, to the extent that it does not act at all, is...the most readable trace of the soul." Bresson believed in this idea so passionately that in Lancelot du Lac, his 1974 film based on the King Arthur legend, he hides faces and bodies behind helmets and armor, and in the most brilliant of all his films, Au Hasard Balthazar, he fills the title role with the ultimate nonprofessional actor: a donkey.

It isn't surprising that Bresson made two films adapted from Bernanos novels - the other is Mouchette, released in 1967 - because both of these artists were as disturbed by the decadence of the modern world as they were fascinated by Roman Catholic teachings and traditions. Bernanos died in 1948, three years before Bresson made Diary of a Country Priest, and no one knows how he would have responded to the film, which keeps the basic storyline, replaces the novel's diary entries with extensive voiceovers, and trades the book's lively, mercurial tone for a consistently somber, pensive mood. Diary of a Country Priest is less emotionally stirring than Au Hasard Balthazar or Mouchette, less unpredictable than the prisoner-of-war drama A Man Escaped (1956) or the spiritual thriller L'Argent (1983), and less mysterious than Lancelot du Lac, or The Devil, Probably (1977). Yet as fine as those films are, Diary of a Country Priest is perhaps the best introduction to Bresson's uncompromising vision, and his admirers will never tire of it. It tells a timeless tale in an engrossing manner that carries the art of film into territories no one before Bresson ever thought to explore.

Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson; Georges Bernanos (novel)
Cinematography: L.H. Burel
Art Direction: Pierre Charbonnier
Music: Jean-Jacques Grunenwald
Film Editing: Paulette Robert
Cast: Claude Laydu (Priest of Ambricourt (Cure d'Ambricourt), Jean Riveyre (Count, Le Comte), Andre Guibert (Priest of Torcy, Cure de Torcy), Marie-Monique Arkell (Countess, La Comtesse), Nicole Maurey (Miss Louise), Nicole Ladmiral (Chantal), Martine Lemaire (Seraphita Dumontel), Balpetre (Dr. Delbende, Docteur Delbende), Jean Danet (Olivier), Gaston Severin (Canon, Le Chanoine).
BW-115m.

by David Sterritt VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
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