The new priest (Claude Laydu) of the rural village of Ambricourt has his work cut out for him. Not only is he suffering physically from a stomach ailment that means all he can consume is bread, wine and a little fruit, but spiritually he is heading for a crisis as well. For a start, the villagers have no interest in attending masses at the church, and when he thinks he has made a breakthrough with the little girls of the parish, he has a rude awakening: they were simply playing a trick on him. Truth is, the locals believe the priest to be a drunkard and only there to take their money which they are reluctant to hand over, even for the upkeep of the church and its grounds. How will he get through?
Just like those characters in movies who cough early on and end up... not so healthy by the time the credits roll, you can tell there's a full stop on its way for the protagonist's life in possibly director Robert Bresson's most celebrated work. This was to tie in with the religious themes, for the New Testament was of great interest to him, and he presented characters undergoing crises of the soul more than once, in fact, from some angles that's just about all he did. Reluctant to use professional actors, he would take amateurs and complete novices and mould them into the performances he wanted, though Laydu had stage experience before stepping in front of his camera here.
He went on to a fairly steady career as an actor, and even worked in children's television, but you don't escape the long shadow of Bresson and it is this effort that marked itself out as his defining role in culture. He certainly conveyed the ache of his spirituality so that it showed in every stark closeup, but that was more or less all he did for two hours, which can make the film daunting to anyone but the most serious-minded "cinema as art" devotee; everyone else? Particularly if you do not share the piece's religious persuasion, it can look a lot like a naïve young man putting himself through an ordeal entirely unnecessarily for a bunch of people who don't give a shit about him.
For some, the unnamed priest's sacrifice for those ungrateful villagers is the ultimate expression of love for a humanity that does not know enough to realise the enormous devotion one man is showing them, but does so anyway because it is his path to the Kingdom of Heaven and will save their souls as well. For others, he is a miserabilist who masochistically revels in his own suffering in the entirely unproven belief that he is making friends with the magic invisible man in the sky, who probably doesn't exist either, indeed, Bresson is so intent on improving the lot of his main character in the afterlife that we see precious little proof of any presence of God here on Earth, which would make the priest's trials and tribulations at least more valid. In fact, if it were not for his faith, there would be a terrifying void at the film's heart.
Ah, faith, something which is difficult to justify to one who demands proof, since with proof there is no need for faith, a paradox that the sceptics would term more than a little convenient to keeping the religion racket going. Yet this film demonstrates how in the bleakest of lives - and the priest is being ground down under the burden of indifference in everyone else - faith can be the best thing to hang onto, and if the holy man had all hope kicked out of him by his trying existence, then the whole affair would have been pointless. He does manage to give succour to the region's Countess whose riches have not offered her any comfort, but once she is out of the picture it's back to lonely bicycle rides and conversations with people who don't "get" him. Although often portrayed as hardly saying a word, the priest actually hardly shuts up, thanks to the narration of his diary pages, and he does go out of his way for religious discussions. It's likely to leave most with mixed feelings. Music by Jean-Jacques Grunenwald.