Diary of a Country Priest is a film about the titular priest whose faith is tested by a small town in which he begins work. Even when he helps others rediscover their spirituality, details are distorted by locals to make him look bad. Director Robert Bresson may have not been a religious man himself, but he respected those who did have faith. This is a meditative film about life and faith. It functions as a tribute to believers, especially those who chose to stand up to the apathetic currents in society.
- Director: Robert Bresson
- Writer: Georges Bernanos, Robert Bresson
- Cast: Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyre, Adrien Borel
A young priest settles into the parish of a small town but quickly realizes that his presence is undesired. Though his intentions are pure, the bitter feelings that plague the lives of his parish members lead him to grapple with his faith. While documenting his thoughts in a diary, he finds himself seeking kindness, compassion, and the purpose of life.
Bresson became an international sensation with this film, and I can only imagine that much of this is due to the universal appeal of seeing a character struggling with his faith. Compared to other films about religious characters, Bresson’s film provides a more personal experience. With its use of voice-over narration, Bresson articulates the priest’s inner turmoil in a way that is instantly accessible albeit spiritually vague at times. As the priest is told in one scene, “to be respected and obeyed is the most important thing.” Here is a very human priest, one who still experiences life with the vulnerability of someone who seems to sometimes question the shield provided of god’s protection. Furthermore, the priest’s vulnerability is accentuated when we discover that his health is in poor condition, a predicament that adds depth to his diary reflections.
Known for using non-professional actors, Bresson’s directing ability is evident from the way he leverages various narrative elements to pull out solid performances from Claude Ladyu and the rest of the cast. The actors are further bolstered by the fact that the tone has largely been established for them. Ladyu hardly shows any emotion, and yet the solemn look on his face is perfect for the material. The environment in town in monotonous, and in this way Bresson seems to also help his actors convey a sense of hopelessness. I don’t fully enjoy films in which the acting is stripped down to function almost purely as we’re observing models on a set. However, Bresson is so focused on his subject matter that his approach to such acting is somehow justified by how well they serve his purpose. The film is not perfect, but taking it in as a whole, it feels executed with precision. Diary of a Country Priest gains much from the fact that it combines the literary quality of voice-overs with framed images that compliment each other.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s review accurately appraises the qualities that Bresson brought to his films. As Ebert reminds us, Bresson doesn’t resort to merely breaking down scenes into easy storytelling elements. Instead, it’s as if he allowed each scene to unravel as an unyielding fact. I agree that Diary of a Country Priest works well in this way, as it allows each scene the space and time required for it to breathe. Ebert’s regard for Bresson’s work feels genuine, although there is still an element of theoretical justification to such praise. To convey how much critics respected Bresson, Ebert describes a Bresson premiere in which it appeared as though critics were attending church. But the crux of this film lies in what Ebert describes as an existential dilemma, which basically asks, “what is the point of life when its destination is death?” This is essentially what the priest encounters when he questions his faith but remains serious about his beliefs. And this very type of questioning happens to be one of the elements that make Bresson films important works of art.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Diary of a Country Priest? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Waking Life
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest this week, he now has 340 under his belt and less than 30 films left to go.