Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) is living through troubling times for the Italian Occupation of her small-town home has been taken over by the Nazi German one, and that could spell disaster for her and her young daughter. Up until now she always considered herself a Communist, and that is a major no-no for the Nazis, and since her husband was Jewish - he has fled the country - she and her child could be carted away to a concentration camp if she is not careful. Therefore she must work out a method of securing her child's future, and to that end has her staying in a farm house nearby while Barny takes a post in the town at an examination board for students. But she must go further...
Yes, she must go as far as shagging a priest! Whether she achieves that goal is up to you to watch the film to find out, but in an interesting item of casting, famed French tough guy Jean-Paul Belmondo was that titular holy man, the possessor of one of the greatest faces in his nation's cinema and with a far wider range than anyone would have suspected in these earlier days of his career. Here he was not essaying some fighting Father, but more a man who had employed a scholarly approach to finding his place in the world, and always had the right quote for every occasion, even the right book to hand to the members of his flock to clear up sticky theological points.
Now Barny wishes to convert for the sake of her daughter, does that mean she has seen the light and Catholicism will save her soul? The film seemed to think so, on the side of Belmondo's Father Morin, yet that did not mean he was going to get it all his own way as she was a woman, dammit, and she had needs. These needs had already seen her fall in love, or perhaps lust, with one of her co-workers, but seeing as how she was a woman called Sabine (Nicole Mirel) it's the love that dare not speak its name, especially in conservative rural France under the Occupation, so as far as we could discern Barny merely transferred her imagined affections from the icy Sabine to the priest instead.
There followed many intellectual discussions about how to reconcile the woes of existence with the notion of a loving God, but all the way through these Barny came across as one short step away from tearing off Morin's shirt with her teeth: remember The Thorn Birds? Book or miniseries? It was very much that kind of set-up, only this leaned far more on talking things through and rising above the pleasures of the flesh with a hefty dose of theology. The problem there was, Barny was obviously lonely and wanted romantic company her surroundings were not offering her, therefore Morin was the most obvious candidate for targeting her affections, and these debates she insisted on inviting him over to take part in were plainly an excuse to be in his company for as long as she possibly could.
The writer and director here was Jean-Pierre Melville, not the most obvious pick given he was best known for his moody crime drama and thrillers, but each of those liked to drag in a weighty bit of philosophising as well, so this was more of that sort of thing and less of the hitman or criminal underworld milieu his fans may have been used to. Interestingly, he was Jewish by birth and had fled to Britain when the Occupation began, continuing to fight the good fight from the other side of the Channel, so with his and Army of Shadows, his other important work on the subject, one did wonder if he was making up for not sticking around back then and finding other ways to battle the Nazi threat other than joining the Resistance. With Léon Morin, Priest, this was more of a backdrop to Barny's internal strife, delivered in austere manner that may need a lot of patience if you did not share the film's religious concerns, but it did feature a most unusual screen couple, predictably well-acted by both. Music by Martial Solal.
Aka: Léon Morin, prêtre
[This film and five others directed by Melville are available on a Blu-ray box set The Jean-Pierre Melville Collection, with in-depth featurettes as supplements on each disc.]