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DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Claude Laydu, André Guibert, Jean Riveyre, Nicole Ladmiral, Marie-Monique Arkell, Antoine Balpêtré, Bernard Hubrenne
Director: Robert Bresson
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Criterion
Features: Trailer, commentary, essay
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: February 3, 2004

"In this sorry world, the night undoes the work of the day."

Film ****

Influential 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." 

This 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.

Bresson's 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.

Diary 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.

In 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.

Claude 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).

Nevertheless, 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.

An 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.

Perhaps, 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?"

As 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. 

Faith 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.

Video ***

Diary 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.

Audio ** 1/2

Diary 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. 

Features ** 1/2

The 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.

The 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 life.

Summary:

Diary of a Country Priest is a graceful and spiritual film that also demonstrates the evolution of Robert Bresson's stylistic touches as an influential filmmaker.  As an important masterpiece in the career of this highly respected French director, it is a film that fans of classic European cinema will certainly revere.