"What does it matter? All is grace."—the priest of Ambricourt
Robert Bresson was a unique voice in French cinema, to say the least. He eschewed conventional film language, striving for an emotionally intense minimalism that, stripped of the distraction of plot mechanics, showcased his characters' longing for spiritual transcendence in the face of human fallibility and vice. And he hated the mannered artifice of professional actors, peopling his films with amateurs. In these ways, he was a bridge between the formulaic French cinema that preceded him and La Nouvelle Vague of Truffaut and Godard that would follow.
Bresson''s fourth film, 1951's Journal D'un Curé de Campagne or Diary of a Country Priest, is the first in which many of the hallmarks of his style coalesce into a truly brilliant and satisfying piece of cinema. Thankfully, the film is now available on DVD and, as if that weren't reason enough to celebrate, it's been lovingly handled by the good folks at the Criterion Collection.
Facts of the Case
Upon arrival at his first parish, a French provincial town called Ambricourt, a young priest (Claude Laydu) finds himself alienated from his flock after witnessing an influential count philandering with his daughter's governess. Plagued with health problems that lead to gossip about him being a drunkard, and finding little solace in the advice of his well-meaning mentor, the priest of Torcy, the young man does his best to shepherd the townsfolk even as their disinterest and malice cause him a crisis of faith.
Like Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson employs a spare, elliptical style that foregoes conventional dramatic rhythms in favor of basking in the intensity of closely-observed detail (as a matter of fact, Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader wrote an entire book on the similarities between the three directors, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer). In Diary of a Country Priest, we watch the titular clergyman glide like a ghost from place to place but are denied a first-person view of much of his interaction with Ambricourt's townspeople. Bresson gives us the beginnings and ends of conversations, cut short by dissolves or fades to black. In one instance, we see the priest arrive at the count's manor and are promptly tossed, by way of a quick dissolve, to his exit—two shots of the young man passing through the same doorway, but nothing of what occurred inside the house. By structuring the film in this way, Bresson emphasizes the priest's isolation, ensures the story's focus on his internal spiritual struggle, and maintains a crisp pace in what is a contemplative piece.
The filmmaker's restraint also serves to underscore those moments in which he places drama center stage, the most striking of which is the priest's struggle to save the soul of the countess, angry at God because of her husband's infidelity, her daughter's wicked scheming, and the traumatic loss of her infant son. Bresson allows us to watch nearly the entire conversation between priest and countess as it unfolds by the fireplace in the manor's sitting room, but still the dialogue is lean and weighted with subtext, much of the drama carried on the character's faces. It is one of the first times we see that, despite his physical weakness, social isolation, and spiritual confusion—or maybe because of them—the young priest has a peculiar moral authority and power. It is a turning point in the film, easily recognized as such because of the delicacy and restraint of Bresson's storytelling.
The film is a close adaptation of Georges Bernanos's novel of the same name, and Bresson's style is particularly well-suited to translating an internally complex work, literary by nature, into the medium of film. On a technical level, the director's use of image and voice-over is stunning. He consistently breaks the rule of not telling us what we're seeing—the priest often recites descriptions from his diary entries of images that have flashed, are flashing, or will flash before our eyes, punctuated by inserts of his hand scrawling the words he speaks—but it works, again, because of Bresson's restraint. Because he's so careful in what he chooses to show us and tell us, this conscious layering of image, spoken word, and written word lends power to the details rather than diluting them. And it enables the director to handle what is certainly the most daunting challenge of adapting Bernanos's book: the young priest's alienation from his community, his suffering at the hands of their cold rejection, his anguish over God's silence in the midst of his suffering, and the blossoming of his moral and spiritual authority as a result of these trials are clearly meant to evoke Christ's passion. The priest of Ambricourt's story is one of taking up his figurative cross daily despite the apathy and hostility of the fallen world in which he resides. If expressed too transparently, such symbolism can only lessen the sense of the character's plight. Set in too obvious a relief with Christ's, his suffering becomes inconsequential and, if there's any notion that the character is aware of the parallels, even solipsistic. Bresson's most significant artistic achievement in Diary of a Country Priest is the way the film draws its resonant power from Christ's transformation of suffering into a source of spiritual power, without straying into apologetics, undermining our empathy for the priest and his specific trials.
The priest of Ambricourt is played by Claude Laydu in his feature film debut (he was 23 years old at the time). The performance is magnificent, Bresson and cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel shooting the actor in the style of a silent film. Languid close-ups allow emotion to be expressed largely through the pools of his eyes, set against facial expressions that are mostly closed. It's a performance in total keeping with Bresson's storytelling. Much of the film's dialogue, and even the priest's diary entries, relay only fact, giving us the bare minimum of information we need to make sense of things. The film's emotional power springs from the quiet, physical aspects of acting, and Laydu handles the challenge of delivering such complex, non-verbal moments with a skill that belies his inexperience, aided enormously by Bresson and Burel who light and frame him with painstaking precision. Laydu's must be one of the great screen debuts.
Burel brings to Diary of a Country Priest a stark beauty that makes ample use the film's rustic French provincial setting. Shot entirely with 50mm lenses, the rectory, manor, farmhouses, and winter-bare trees are captured in rich detail, as are the faces and costumes of the actors. Burel used both diffusers and gauze to create a lovely filtered look that must have been difficult to transfer into the digital realm, but Criterion has done so with precision. The picture sports gorgeous contrast that runs from sparkling whites, to inky blacks, and a myriad shades of gray in between. The image does flicker a bit in isolated spots, and there are instances of fine scratches that reach the entire height of the frame vertically, but absolute perfection is often out of reach when dealing with film sources this old and Criterion's restoration of Diary of a Country Priest is a sight to behold. Happily, Bresson's artful dissolves and fade-outs are entirely stable in the gate and can be fully appreciated for the skill with which they're employed and executed.
The restoration of the audio track is equally impressive. Bresson was as meticulous with his use of sound as he was with image, and worked with sound designer Jean Rieul to create a track that is lean, precise, and surprisingly subtle and spatially detailed for mono (especially considering Criterion presents the track in a true one-channel mix). The track is in French, of course, with optional English subtitles.
Supplements on this single-disc release include a highly informative (if rather stiffly delivered) feature-length commentary by Peter Cowie, author of Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the '60s; an essay by Frédéric Bonnaud, translated to English and reprinted from a 1999 issue of Film Comment; and a theatrical trailer for the film.
If you love movies, Diary of a Country Priest is one of those titles you have to see. Artistically powerful in its own right, yet enormously influential on the French cinema that followed, it's not to be missed.
Do yourself a favor and add this wonderful disc to your collection.
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• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Peter Cowie
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