Robert Bresson’s 1950 breakthrough film, Diary Of A Country Priest (Journal D’Un Cure De Campagne), is one of those films that is absolutely antithetical to everything a Hollywood film stands for. It is obsessive, detailed, slow, and opaque. This, however, does not mean it is a great film, as so many knee-jerk critics claim it is. It is not; but it is a very interesting film. Ostensibly, it may seem to be a film on religion and/or suffering, or, as film critic Fréderic Bonnard claims, in The Criterion Collection’s DVD essay on the film, a film ‘about imprisonment,’ but it’s neither, really. It’s more cogently a film about masochism, guilt, and pathological privation, although it does touch upon religion, suffering, and imprisonment. The film was not only directed by Bresson (his fourth of thirteen films), but also adapted by Bresson from the 1936 novel of the same title by Georges Bernanos. Anyone familiar with the works of Carl Theodor Dreyer will be familiar with the techniques used by Bresson- although this film is less stagey and more intimate in tone, but Bresson’s cinematographer, Léonce-Henry Burel, is not as slow and deliberate as Dreyer, nor does the film depend so heavily on the juxtaposition between light and dark as Dreyer’s works do. There is a ‘lightness’ in Bresson’s film that is absent from Dreyer’s- both in terms of the gauzey and diffused visuals and intellect. This is not to say that Bresson’s film lacks depth, it’s merely not as dependent upon a grand philosophical posit as Dreyer’s films are.
Bresson’s film make greater use of the filmic palette of tools; employing quicker editing, and entering and leaving scenes with ellipses. As example, many scenes in the film start with the main character, the priest from Ambricourt (Claude Laydu- who looks uncannily like a younger version of American actor John DeLancie, Q from the television's sequels of Star Trek), already in media res- a discussion, or even at the end of a scene that has been elided. Also, Bresson is constantly thwarting visual and narrative expectations in the film, by honing his focus on the young priest, such as showing him looking out the rectory window, leaning out to hear something, but never showing us what it is, or even by having sounds occur- such as the bark of a dog, or the roar of a motorcycle or train, but never showing the thing making the noise. Why should he? Is such not in our reservoir of knowledge? Is showing the particular train that is chugging along so important? Also, late in the film, there is a great dissolve of the young priest falling asleep at a café and waking up before his nodding off has left the screen. In these ways, Bresson shows that he is a filmmaker of considerable skill and individuated vision, even if this is not the Minimalism many lazier critics claim it is. Minimalism is different from spareness. But, the tale that he chose to tell in this film is simply not up to the stylistic bravado that Bresson employs.
The story is rather simple. A young, sickly, and malnourished priest arrives in the parochial French countryside village of Ambricourt to run his first parish, but the small minded rural congregation takes a disliking to him. We never quite find out why this is, but it seems to be caused by the baleful influence of two demonic girls- one, a blond grade schooler named Séraphita (Martine Lemaire), who seems to have been a precursor to the hellish children from Village Of The Damned, and the other, a brunet high schooler named Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), the daughter of the powerful local Count (Jean Riveyre), who seems to resent the priest from their first meeting, staring at each other from between the bars of his estate as he squires his young mistress, Chantal’s governess, Louise (Nicole Maurey).
Yet, as caught as he is in the social web of the small town, even more so is the young priest caught in his own crisis of faith. Throughout the film he browbeats himself, stating how worthless and vile he is, almost to the point of comedic relief. Were the film a bit less serious it may have made for a good comic assault on the church’s excesses, in the Dr. Strangelove vein. Although Bresson certainly didn’t intend to make fun of the Roman Catholic faith- even though he was an agnostic, one cannot help but to think that rarely has a work of art so thorough laid bare the utter silliness behind the Catholic guilt trip than this film does. This is evident through the titular diary entries that the priest keeps.
Bresson then makes a key error in the film, by having the priest do voiceovers of what he writes, then shows him writing it, and then letting the very thing spoken and written of play out. Famed French film critic André Bazin lauded such a technique, claiming, ‘The most moving moments of the film are those in which the text and image are saying the same thing, each however in its own way….I doubt if the individual frames in any other film, taken separately, are so deceptive.’ Well, the first half of that quote is manifest, for two different media will naturally say the same thing in different ways, but deception is not the key to the technique. Bresson is trying to emphasize the priest’s stolidity in reliving his failures over and again, to build empathy in the viewer. This is why the hangdog looks of the young priest are lingered upon so long, as well. Were this a straightforward film noir he might have been able to get away with this sort of technique, but hearing the banalities and inanities the young and guileless priest writes, then watching him enact the very same banalities and inanities, falls flat, and distances and inures one from and to the very sufferings meant to be instilled and empathized with, because the words overshadow and mute the visuals, which always work best on a subliminal level. This was obviously a stylistic cinematic choice by Bresson, since he so consciously and effectively used ellipses elsewhere, and perhaps it was done because the main character was played by a first time non-actor, but it still falls short dramatically, as well as obscuring the power of the actual scene.
The priest has taken to starving himself, subsisting only on wine soaked bread and sugar, much to the displeasure of his older fellow priest, from the nearby village of Torcy (André Guibert). By film’s end it is found out that the young priest is suffering from stomach cancer; the same ailment that would bedevil the lead character in Akira Kurosawa’s film Ikiru two years later, but even this revelation does no good, as the young man dies, much as the wife of the count, and mother of Chantal, the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell), dies, not long after a robust discussion on life and ethics with the priest. She blames God for the death of her infant son, yet the young priest feels he has won back her soul. Then, he finds out that she is dead, having seemingly suicided. Similarly, a little earlier, the village doctor, Dr. Delbende (Antoine Balpêtré), who initially diagnoses the young priest as being ill from being born to an alcoholic mother, also dies, but of a gunshot wound. Whether or not it is self-inflicted is the query. Almost everyone in Ambricourt is a schemer, someone more at home in a French soap opera than a real drama. Then there are Chantal and Séraphita. The former girl seems all spite and malice, plotting to overthrow both her mother and governess to wrap her father about her finger, while the younger girl, after cruelly taunting the priest about his ‘beautiful eyes,’ actually saves him when he faints in the forest. Whether or not this is because he has had an ameliorating effect on her is debatable, but he has none on Chantal.
In fact, the only local villager who seems to be a decent human being is Chantal’s motorcycle riding cousin Olivier (Jean Danet). When the priest decides to visit a big city, Lille, to find a doctor for his illness, it is Olivier who gives him a ride to the train, and confesses that, under different circumstances, he and the priest may have been friends. As the priest rides on the back of the motorbike, for the only time in the 115 minute film do we see him crack a broad smile. Only once, a bit earlier in the film, did he even come close to a grimace. Yet, once he is in the city, and after another ellipsis, showing him headed out of the doctor’s office, we find out he has learnt of his stomach cancer and impending death. He heads to an old classmate’s flat. That classmate is Abbott Dufréty (Bernard Hubrenne), who may have quit the priesthood or been defrocked- it is never made clear, and is now a drug salesman, who has fallen in love with a woman. There, the priest finally collapses into death, with only Dufréty’s letter of his final moments being read by the priest of Torcy, as a silhouette of a cross is on screen.
The film has some moving scenes and powerful imagery, but, as a whole, too much of the philosophizing is cheap and expected, and nothing new is brought to the table, so to speak. The priest of Ambricourt is merely a boy out of his element. The actor portraying him was only twenty-three at the time, and while his natural callowness is put to good effect, there is really nothing more that the actor can convey, save his sad puppy dog look that pervades the whole film. He constantly uses differing words to display his assorted agonies, such as suffer, ordeal, torture, faintness, weak, prisoner, but little differentiation is seen in the character’s outward expression. Compared to Robert De Niro’s performance of Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, made a quarter century later, and whose sufferings come from an unknown source, there is none of the nuance nor shading of the pains that De Niro brings to his bravura role.
The DVD has only a few extras, such as the aforementioned insert booklet essay, the original four minute theatrical trailer- restored by the French National Center Of Cinematography, which contains scenes not used in the film (the original cut was nearly an hour longer), and an audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, who is very hit and miss. This commentary is good and solid, but with nothing exceptional. Cowie keeps things going at a good pace, and does not sidetrack into useless digressions. He does, however, claim that the film is set in the 1930s, like the novel, but this is clearly wrong, and undermined by the priest of Torcy’s claim that the country is ‘at war,’ meaning it could be set in the Second World War- although no Nazis appear, or more likely, set contemporaneously, when the French were fighting to retain their colonial power in Vietnam. Also, the motor vehicles depicted in the film are clearly later than 1930s vintage. As always, though, Criterion has made two serious errors with this release. First, there is no English dubbed soundtrack, and secondly, the white subtitles are almost unreadable against some of the harsher white backgrounds. Does a company with as much financial resources as Criterion really expect its viewers to believe they cannot put the subtitles into a readable gold format, especially on black and white films? Yes, one may argue about dubbing, and its costs, but unreadable subtitles are simply inexcusable, for they detract even more from the initial viewing experience than even good subtitles do. It also forces one to have to watch the visuals a second time, as one listens to the commentary, for so much is lost trying to decipher white from white.
Yet, the film never reaches the heights that other religiously meditative films, such as Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, do, mostly because of the very blandness of the narrative. Whereas Bergman’s film transcends religion and cores into universal human behavior, Diary Of A Country Priest merely presents its simple narrative, and if one cannot get into it- for its religious-specific ideas, so be it. Also, the film never gets truly inside the young priest. Why, for example, does he even keep a diary? All it seems to be is a book filled with gossip and his petty and self-serving observations. Yet, the film likens the priest to a Christ-like character, rather than a mere outcast. Since outcasts are universal, why does Bresson decide to affiliate the lead character with the remote Christ and not the ubiquitous nebbish? After all, the priest has no name, and this is clearly done to universalize him, even though a priest, by definition, is a non-universal figure. Not that a Christ complex could not be compelling onscreen, just that this particular one is not, for all this character can muster are vapid apothegms such as, ‘The desire to pray is already prayer,’ “I was a victim of the Holy Agony,’ or his dying words, as related by Dufréty: ‘What does it matter? Everything is grace.’
Were only those words true this film would recapitulate their meaning. Failing that, it at least tries, something that, again, Hollywood films do not even dare. Perhaps that young priest was on to something?