Diary of a Country Priest (1951) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Claude Laydu, Nicole Ladmiral, Jean Riveyre, Marie-Monique Arkell, Rachel Bérendt, Bernard Hubrenne, Martine Lemaire
By Greg Klymkiw
“Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But, we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit”. 1st Corinthians 12:13
Cinema is sacred. Robert Bresson understood this more than any filmmaker. Furthermore, his utterly perfect Diary of a Country Priest, embodying the true power of cinema, is a motion picture as sacred as the medium of film itself and endowed with the greatest ability to transcend all that art has given us.
It is grace itself.
The ability of cinema to instil faith and regeneration are, I think, unparalleled and certainly, Bresson achieved this through much of his career. Though he generated great work before and after Diary of a Country Priest, there are no other films in his canon (and few films generated by a handful of others) that deserve as lofty a stature.
Even now, in an age when many have given up on this artistic medium to soar, to truly fulfill the promise it first held at the turn of the 20th century, movies continue - against incredible odds - to be the one artistic medium to bring together so many facets of expression, that to give up on it feels more heretical than anything anyone (including the Catholics) could dream up. Though most contemporary theatrical feature films are generated cynically as roller coaster rides for the (seemingly) indiscriminate, this surely is no different than the dawn of cinema when the medium was akin to a carnival sideshow trifle. Besides, in the hundred years of its existence, there have always been artists who used (and continue to use) the medium in ways that allow us to soar beyond the mere visceral - to touch our hearts and minds in ways that few art forms can attain.
Leo Tolstoy, arguably one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) writer of the modern age had the opportunity to taste the power of film ever-so briefly at the dawn of cinema and lamented that such a mode of expression became available to him far too late in his life. He saw the potential in movies to take his own mode of expression so much further than he believed his writing allowed him. Though he experimented with achieving a three dimensional scope in his drama on the stage, it was cinema where he saw the most potential to present what words were incapable of expressing alone - a medium where words could be translated into a universal, visual language with drama, poetry, scope and life itself. Not just "physical" life, but the spiritual elements that also comprise the very being of existence.
When Tolstoy's great philosophical work "What is Art?" was finally published to his liking (without state censorship) in 1898, he spoke of the "art of the future" as being one that "will be chosen from among all the art diffused among mankind [and that it] will consist, not in transmitting feelings accessible only to members of the rich classes, but [that it will] transmit feelings drawing men together in brotherly union, or such universal feelings as can unite all men."
This "art of the future" indeed became cinema, and Robert Bresson is, without a doubt, one of its high priests. Though he continually claimed to be interested in stripping away unnecessary "adornments", his work is infused with his own brand of adornment - rooted deeply in the language of cinema, but used to its highest degrees.
Diary of a Country Priest is, on its surface, the simple tale of a young priest (Claude Laydu) who takes over his first parish in the village of Ambricourt. Just out of the seminary, he dreams of establishing himself and God's work as a vital part of the provincial community he is plopped into. Plagued with illness and a parish that suspects his intentions (and, in fact, takes advantage of his earnest desire to help), he faces challenges of both the physical and spiritual kind. In spite of this, he refuses to give up and even when he discovers that he is not suffering from an ulcer, or even tuberculosis, but deadly stomach cancer, he faces an even greater challenge in which to commit himself to an overwhelming force greater than himself.
The force of love.
Bresson, of course, understands the beauty of simplicity and how it is a perfect tool to yield layers of complexity. Once again, using primarily non-actors in actual locations, he generates a natural quality that enhances the work, but he does not eschew the power inherent in the medium itself and both uses it and pushes it in order to place us in a genuine state of grace. Bresson's trademark long takes and simple camera set-ups with little or no movement are used here to perfection.
One of the most powerful demonstrations of Bresson's command of cinema occurs when the priest travels to Lille to see a specialist and discovers he's terminally ill. He visits Dufrety (Bernard Hubrenne), an old friend from the seminary who has since given up his vows to set up an apothecary and live with a woman out of wedlock. Dufrety resides in a squalid suite and his common-law wife apologizes for its condition while explaining that she must work long hours as a cleaning lady in order to support her husband and herself as he tries to make his new business get off the ground.
In what must be one of the most extraordinary shots in movie history we begin just after the priest has entered the suite. He stands at the bed. Fatigued, he sits. The camera moves into a close head and shoulders shot of the priest. Eventually Dufrety moves into the shot and the camera pulls back a bit to allow for a gorgeously composed two-shot. When Dufrety leaves the frame, the camera slowly moves back to the head and shoulders position on the priest. At one point, there is a jarring jerk of the camera as the priest gets a stab of pain. The camera moves in even closer and fades to black, almost iris-like upon the look of horror and despair that wracks the priest's visage.
This entire shot lasts just over three minutes - with no cuts whatsoever. The "content" of the shot is primarily Dufrety explaining his woeful situation and dismissing his common-law wife, complaining that "she counts for nothing" in his "intellectual life". One of the few times the priest speaks in this sequence which is, essentially, a monologue from Dufrety, is the devastatingly heart-felt revelation that if he, like Dufrety, had broken his vows, he'd "rather it had been for love of a woman" than for what Dufrety calls his "intellectual life".
This is cinema at its highest level.
We have a central character, who has been besieged with all manner of ill-will from his parish (in spite of his efforts to be truly helpful) and has had more than several reasons to question his own faith and yet, his steadfast belief in one thing never changes - that faith and grace are love itself. (His doubts are the hurdles he must surmount in order to successfully attain this goal.) Here, within this dramatic sequence, which takes place entirely in one shot focused upon the priest, we see a man wracked with unbearable physical pain. However, and in spite of this, he reveals that his faith in love has not left him - that the spirit of God, his own spirit, is firmly committed to the notion that love is the ultimate spirit that embraces all.
To say this is one of the most moving, heartbreaking and yet inspirational dramatic sequences in all of cinema is, frankly, an understatement. Bresson's mise-en-scene is exactly the right way to capture the dramatic and thematic concerns of the film and its central character.
Indeed, through much of the film, there is no love. His favourite pupil at Catechism (Martine Lemaire) makes a point of learning her scripture in order to mock him and hurt his feelings. The daughter (Nicole Ladmiral) of a philandering count (Jean Riveyre) whom he tries to show kindness to spreads vicious rumours about him. And in a key sequence, when the priest attempts, in spite of the physical pain coursing through his body to offer spiritual healing to the heartbroken wife of the count (Marie-Monique Arkell), he discovers that one day after accepting the Holy Spirit back in her life, she dies.
Diary of a Country Priest is spiritual and, in its own way, a deeply religious experience, BUT without dogma and rendered in a fashion that comes closest to a drama of life itself. Possibly because of Bresson's own personal interest in the Calvinist influence upon Catholicism via Jansenism (a movement that was grudgingly tolerated, but eventually deemed heretical by the Catholic Church) was he so inspired to make a movie about faith that questioned the tenets of organized religion and furthermore, placed emphasis on a PERSONAL acceptance of predestination and the importance of finding divine grace in love.
Bresson's need to strip away conventional cinematic storytelling adheres very closely to Tolstoy's interpretation of early Christian appreciation for art. According to Tolstoy, Christians who accepted the teachings of Christ, but "not in the perverted, paganised form in which it was accepted subsequently" were also not tolerant of "plastic representations" - especially when they were purely "symbolical" - or, in a bit of interpretive paraphrasing, when art resorted to archetypes or stereotypes.
Bresson takes his characters and places them within a careful, delicate mise-en-scene that allows for a narrative and thematic purity. The title character, not only by his words and actions, but by the manner in which Bresson assembles his shots, cuts and forward movement, comes ever-closer to the spiritual notion of INDIVIDUAL faith.
In fact, Tolstoy points to the very religion and tainted atmosphere that Bresson's priest finds himself within. Tolstoy, especially in how it relates to art, condemns the "New" Christianity as one that "did not acknowledge the fundamental and essential positions of true Christianity", that being "the immediate relationship of each man to the Father, the consequent brotherhood and equality of all men, and the substitution of humility and love in place of every kind of violence."
This places Bresson's title character squarely within the context of a religion that Tolstoy insists is "contrary" to Christ's teachings and firmly rooted in a false "heavenly hierarchy similar to the pagan mythology, and having introduced the worship of Christ, of the Virgin, of angels, of apostles, of saints, and of martyrs, and not only of these divinities themselves, but also of their images, it made blind faith in the Church and its ordinances the essential point of its teaching."
This is what our Country Priest faces - in himself, his colleagues and his parish. What he must discover, what perhaps we ALL must discover is in the simple words which end the priest's life (over the iconic image - in shadow, no less - of the crucifix).
"What does it matter?" asks our Country Priest before definitively proclaiming, "All is grace."
And so it is.
"Diary of a Country Priest" is part of the TIFF Cinemtheque's major retrospective organized and curated by the legendary programmer James Quandt. Aptly titled "The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson", this and every other Bresson film is unspooling at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and over a dozen cinemas across North America. "Diary of a Country Priest" is also available on a stunning Criterion Collection DVD. This is definitely worth owning, but only AFTER or in TANDEM with seeing the picture ON A BIG SCREEN - ON FILM.
"Diary of a Country Priest" is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox Sunday February 12 at 4:00 PM and Saturday March 3 at 4:00 PM.
To order tickets and read Quandt's fabulous program notes, visit the TIFF website HERE.
To read my opening tribute to Bresson and this series, feel free to visit The Robert Bresson Man-Cave™ HERE. I am reviewing every film Bresson ever made. In case you missed it, my review of "A Man Escaped" is HERE, my review of "Pickpocket" is HERE and my review of "Mouchette" is HERE.