Combustible Celluloid
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With: Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyre, Marie-Monique Arkell, Andre Guilbert, Antoine Balpetre, Nicole Ladmiral
Written by: Robert Bresson, based on the novel by Georges Bernanos
Directed by: Robert Bresson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 02/07/1951

Diary of a Country Priest (1950)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Religious Experience

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Why would anyone want to watch a creaky old black-and-white French movie about a dying young priest in the country? Sounds like the ultimate in dull arthouse fare. But this is a film by Robert Bresson, who was one of a handful of truly great artists of the 20th Century. His work continues to resonate and refuses to age, like a great novel, painting, or opera. He's one of the greatest arguments we have for film as an art form.

One could say that 1999 was the year of Bresson. He hadn't made a movie in 17 years, but a retrospective of his work traveled all over the country to sold-out houses. On December 22, 1999, at the age of 98 (or 92, I've seen it listed as both) and just before the turn of the century, Bresson died.

Bresson completed 13 films (plus one short). Most of them are on VHS, and only two, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and now Diary of a Country Priest have been released on DVD.

Bresson was admired by filmmakers all over the world, but he himself hated commercial cinema. He never used established movie stars, and always directed his actors to use great restraint. As a viewer, it was said that he hadn't made it to the end of a movie for the last three or four decades, though he did admire some films, like Chaplin's City Lights (1931). Yet he was a passionate, sensitive man and a great artist. He published a book, Notes on the Cinematographer (thankfully still in print), that outlines his directorial guidelines (he considered himself not a "director" but a "cinematographer"). Roger Ebert has said that anyone who seriously loves cinema will eventually find their way to Robert Bresson.

I have. I've now seen seven of his 13 films, and Diary of a Country Priest was my third. Many Bresson fans would argue that video is the wrong way to watch his films, but I think that any educated filmgoer will be able to read from the video the subtle things that big-screen projection can bring. It helps that Bresson was such a minimalist. He was wary of things like color and widescreen, so many of his films fit the TV screen well (unlike, say, a spectacle like Saving Private Ryan).

Diary of a Country Priest stars Claude Laydu as the young priest who tries so hard to run his first parish in rural France that he physically suffers for it and as a result, turns his flock away. His parishioners don't like him at all, perhaps because he is too serious. His pathetic diet consists of dried bread soaked in cheap wine with sugar (rather obviously symbolic). Because of that he is sometimes seen as a drunk. His big break comes when he visits a Countess who has lost her youngest son and has devoted her life to hating God. They argue and she begins to see things his way. She dies a day later, but she is happy because she has found spirituality. But the woman's daughter overheard part of the conversation and blames the priest for his harshness. The priest is eventually diagnosed with stomach cancer and dies, having found grace at last.

Bresson himself considered Diary of a Country Priest a transitional work. It was his first without professional actors; Bresson preferred to use what he called "models." It was also a tremendous critical success and won several awards, allowing him more artistic freedom. But it shows an uncanny mastery after only two previous films. His lovely use of sounds, like the raking of leaves, add untold emotional resonance to a scene. He was also fond of short tracking shots to move in on characters' faces. One shot in particular with the priest at his altar sticks in my head as particularly stunning. Somehow that quick zoom-in and the expression on the priests' face made me see everything clearly.

Watching Diary of a Country Priest leaves one not only with a spiritual satisfaction, but with the nagging idea that nearly all other directors are sell-outs. Bresson managed to work outside any kind of moviemaking system. For many, part of making movies is getting all the perks: money, fame, and hanging out with movie stars. Bresson wasn't interested in that. He was concerned with making great movies that captured great themes visually. Beside him, even the likes of Ford, Hawks, Kubrick, and Hitchcock get ground up in the Hollywood machine.

Diary of a Country Priest seems, on the surface, like Bresson's least accessible film. His other films at least sound interesting. A Man Escaped is a suspenseful story of a prison break. Pickpocket shows the meticulous lifestyle of a criminal. Lancelot du Lac is an updating of the Holy Grail story, complete with bloody swordfights. Au Hasard Balthazar is about a donkey who experiences the seven deadly sins. And L'Argent follows the fate of people who are involved with a counterfeit bank note. These films all have elements of exploitational cinema, of crime, of the underground, of blood and guts, of deception. Whereas Diary of a Country Priest is about faith and goodness. The priest, despite the fact that he continuously fails and everyone hates him, never loses his faith. He is a good man, and we alone know that. And there is an undeniable joy in the priest's death, for his last words are: "What does it matter? Everything is grace."

Maybe the fact that Diary of a Country Priest stands alone in Bresson's canon makes it special. I've seen it twice now and I don't know yet. But it is a supreme pleasure to try and find out.

Criterion's beautiful new DVD has a slight flutter -- it was made from a good condition film print instead of the negative -- but nothing to take away from this supreme viewing experience. It does come with a rather dry commentary by Peter Cowie, that rarely pays attention to anything going on in the movie; it almost feels like a betrayal to listen to someone speaking over Bresson's sublime images. Fortunately, the excellent liner notes essay by Frederic Bonnaud makes up for it. The theatrical trailer is also included.

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