DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST
Review by Ed Nguyen
Claude Laydu, André Guibert, Jean Riveyre, Nicole Ladmiral, Marie-Monique
Arkell, Antoine Balpêtré, Bernard Hubrenne
Director: Robert Bresson
Audio: French monaural
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Features: Trailer, commentary, essay
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: February 3, 2004
this sorry world, the night undoes the work of the day."
French filmmaker Robert Bresson has typically been regarded over the years as a
quintessential auteur. Possessed of
an idiosyncratic style, he is seen by some as an outsider, a philosopher with a
camera, by others as a cinematic poet. Truffaut
once remarked of him, "His cinema is closer to painting than to
photography." Bresson even
studied painting in his youth, and this background, as he described it, taught
him to "make not beautiful images but necessary ones."
minimalist approach molded Bresson's cinematic technique, which emphasizes a
keen attention to the details and structure of his films.
He often stripped film elements down to their bare essence, creating
films of pure design and ostensible simplicity.
Bresson's goal was to reveal the hidden thoughts or emotions of his
characters in a manner that was unobstructed by extravagances or decorative
flourishes. Like the neorealist
filmmakers of Italy, he frequently employed nonprofessionals or inexperienced
actors, believing that formally trained actors presented a hindrance, for a film
could only be made "by bypassing the will of those who appear in them,
using not what they do but what they are."
In this way, the inner truth of the character could be expressed.
first film, Les Affaires publiques
(1934), was a comedy, of which no prints survive today.
Bresson publicly preferred to think of his 1943 film, Les
Anges du Péché, as the true beginning to his film career.
However, it was not until 1951, with the release of Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary
of a Country Priest), that Bresson began to concretely define the personal
signature that would pervade in all his subsequent films.
of a Country Priest
was based upon a 1936 Georges Bernanos novel.
The film's setting is France in the bygone days of the 1930's, when the
separation between the aristocracy and the peasantry was more marked and when
the Church still held sway over many people's lives.
This proves to be highly relevant to the film, for when a young priest
arrives in the rural country village of Ambricourt, his new parish strangely
does not greet him warmly. Instead,
although the priest is eager and earnest in his duties, the villagers regard him
with an air of apathy and sometimes hostility. The region's rich Count even remarks that the young priest
lacks social skills. The priest
attempts to establish a connection between his new parishioners and himself by
personally visiting their homes or attempting to set up a youth program, but his
efforts either falter or are resisted by the villagers themselves.
addition, the priest's labors are also hindered by his generally poor health.
His stomach upsets him and can only tolerate a diet of bread and wine.
As a result, the priest often appears somewhat fragile, which only
underscores his inability to win over his parish. Still, in the face of such obstacles, he chronicles his daily
struggles as he puts pen to paper and inscribes his thoughts into a personal
diary. The film will in fact
frequently use these diary entries to introduce new scenes, dissolving from the
pages of the journal into scenes that offer glimpses into the priest's rural
life. At times, he seems
pre-occupied or even lost in his private world, and the cinematography
repetitively emphasizes this theme of isolation by photographing the priest from
behind glass windows, the bars of an iron fence, or even from vast distances.
While the structure of the film may consequently appear random at first,
Bresson, being a perfectionist, has actually carefully constructed his film to
symbolically portray the priest's increasing imprisonment, both emotionally and
physically, from his parishioners.
Laydu (then only 23 years old and looking very much like a French James Dean)
portrays the priest in a performance of subtle restraint yet great presence.
Since much of the film's plot is conveyed either through a narrative
voice-over or by the very words written in the diary itself, Laydu's performance
is frequently composed of expressive gestures and close-ups rather than
dialogue. The voice-overs provide
the viewer with some clues into the priest's thoughts but Laydu also does an
exceptional job through the contemplative gestures and expressions he displays,
especially as the camera lingers over his character's countenance (Bresson was
an exacting director, so one wonders how much of Laydu's performance was natural
and how much was created by Bresson).
Laydu's priest is a truly three-dimensional character whose tribulations are at
times touching and at times poignant. There
is a quality of the tragic hero about him, as someone who strives for the
heavens but falls short, either by his own faults and by the deceit of others.
In truth, this priest has no real friends in Ambricourt, for even though
who might befriend him do injury to his good name behind his back - Ambricourt's
duplicitous count (Jean Riveyre) offers only false promises behind his support
of the priest; likewise, the actions of his manipulative daughter Chantal
(Nicole Ladmiral) prove detrimental to the priest's reputation in the town.
aura of resignation can be said to seemingly pervade over all of Ambricourt.
Death itself casts an ominous presence over much of the town and
re-appears in various motifs throughout the film.
Chantal, hinting at her suppressed anger, contemplates suicide at one
point (although this is only suggested in the film and is never overtly stated).
Her mother, the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell), is emotionally paralyzed
by the long-past death of her infant son until, in one of the film's pivotal
scenes, the priest helps her to find absolution.
There is also a country doctor whose lifetime motto ("face up to
it") could not provide him the courage to overcome a loss of faith that
ultimately claims his life. His
passing early in the film is perhaps a symbolic foreshadow of one possible path
for the people of Ambricourt. Ironically,
the priest's only true friend, Dufrety, is a former seminary colleague whose own
struggles with his faith landed him temporarily in a sanatorium; Dufrety's
initial appearance is somewhat startling, a thin, gaunt (almost skeletal)
silhouette emerging from the shadows of his apartment to greet his former
colleague. The priest himself is
often photographed in such a way as to suggest Death in his long, flowing black
robe and pale white face.
in a France at a time when religion was still important, Ambricourt is a town
that has begun to lose its spirituality. If
so, perhaps the priest's struggles are truly in vain and his failure is
inevitable. Even his final words in
the film, "What does it matter? All
is grace," offer a note of ambivalence.
Has the priest finally succumbed to resignation as well, or has he been
enlightened in some manner, acknowledging that even in the saddest events of
life, God's hand and will are at work? Bresson
offers viewers some guidance but ultimately leaves an interpretation of the
film's message to each individual viewer. I,
personally, favor an optimistic outlook, perhaps most notably expressed by poet
Robert Browning when he ponders, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his
grasp, or what is a heaven for?"
might be surmised, Diary of a Country
Priest is not a particularly cheerful film and contains few light passages.
Oddly, Bresson considered himself an agnostic, although his films,
including this one, usually evoke a religious undercurrent reflective of Roman
Catholicism (as opposed to the films of Ingmar Bergman, which tend to be
Lutheran in nature). Still, Diary
of a Country Priest is ultimately more a film about personal faith than
about religion itself.
can be a prison, or perhaps it can be a key to salvation or personal freedom.
That, in essence, is one of the themes of the film.
Diary of a Country Priest was
the fourth film in Bresson's highly influential career, which spanned several
decades yet only produced thirteen films. Nevertheless,
this film marks a milestone in the liberation of postwar French cinema, serving
as a transition from the old, classical style of French cinema to the more
free-form, experimental style of the New Wave.
It is one of Bresson's finest films and substantiates his revered post
among the greats of French cinema.
of a Country Priest
is presented in its original black & white, full-screen format. The film has been digitally restored and the transfer was
created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive.
The image quality truly glows, and the film looks quite marvelous.
While there are still a few minor scratches here or there to remain us of
the film's age, Criterion offers this film in a
near-pristine condition, preserving the beauty of Léonce-Henri Burel's
evocative black & white photography.
of a Country Priest
is in French monaural 1.0, with optional English subtitles.
Random hiss and background noise have been cleaned from the audio track.
Being a monaural track, it does not have the dynamic range of newer films
but it still sounds quite good. Bresson
liked to use the soundtrack in innovative ways, adding natural sounds or
important, off-screen aural cues to advance the narrative, and such is the case
with this film as well (likewise, Bergman did the same thing with his similarly
religious film Winter Light, which was
clearly influenced by Bresson's film). Dialogue
is always clear, and there are no distortions in Jean-Jacques Grünenwald's
austere, if somewhat sparse, musical score.
DVD contains only two extras - a trailer and a commentary track.
The trailer offers some alternative takes or camera angles to actual
scenes from the movie. The
commentary track is provided by film historian Peter Cowie, who presents a
scholarly dissertation on the film's themes and similarities or differences from
the acclaimed novel upon which it was based.
He also provides a great deal of biographical information about novelist
Georges Bernanos and reads several actual passages from the novel to emphasize
certain themes or missing scenes in the movie.
Interestingly, Cowie also suggests that Diary
of a Country Priest, with its numerous close-ups and long pauses, is
structured as a silent film, but with spoken titles.
only other extra is an essay on the film, originally written by Frédéric
Bonnaud for a 1999 issue of Film Comment.
It can be found on the package insert and is an insightful article
discussing the themes of imprisonment and defeat in the film.
In regards to the character of the idealistic young priest, Bonnaud even
notes that "like many future Bressonian characters, he has no place in the
world" and is in essence doomed to fail.
It is a sobering thought, but the film does offer the hope of absolution,
if only one can find inner peace in spite of the tragedies and hardships of