Diary of a Country Priest: The Criterion Collection
For a director so singularly concerned with exposing the internal struggle of ordinary human beings, Robert Bresson had a curious distaste for actors. Like the neo-realists who were his contemporaries, he preferred to cast non-professional or relatively inexperienced performers, but his was no cinema of the streets. On the contrary, Bresson's films are far more philosophical and stylized, and can at first seem impenetrable for their contradiction of formal mastery and performing awkwardness. Bresson's controlling tendencies are strongly evident in his actors' work their movements, their line readings, their very expressions often appear etched by the director himself. At times, they seem to be moved about with the artless èlan of pawns on a chessboard, threatening to further distance an audience already put off by their obvious amateurism. But, if one is able to stick with the picture, this madness slowly gives way to a method, and, in time, the method reveals a spiritual transcendence lurking beneath the emotionally exhausting despair at the surface. His first film in six years after the then-icily received Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), Bresson utilized in Diary of a Country Priest (1951) all of the techniques that would come to be known as his trademark style. As a narrative, it is pared down to the essential, telling the story of an idealistic young priest (Claude Laydu) who ineffectively ministers to a small, indifferent parish in the French countryside. Subsisting on a strict diet of wine, bread and fruit due to an undiagnosed stomach ailment, the priest is always of a gaunt, sickly appearance, which makes the cruelty heaped upon him even harder to bear. When he seeks council from his superior, the Priest of Torcy (Andre Guibert), he is advised to abandon his desire for acceptance within the community. "A good priest is never loved," says his elder. But clearly, he is not a harsh man; indeed, his lack of resolve drives Torcy to believe that he is a poor fit for the priesthood. Nevertheless, the priest soldiers onward despite his poor treatment at the hands of his parishioners, and eventually he finds himself forced into a conference with the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell) after her daughter, the manipulative Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), confides in the priest, distraught at having discovered her father's ongoing affair with their Governess. In the film's most spellbinding sequence, the priest goes head-to-head with the stern Countess, who has, essentially, ceased to feel after the death of her son some years prior. Drawing upon an inner strength fueled solely by his unwavering faith, the priest is able to wear down the severe older woman, offering up something perilously close to absolution; thus, it is far from surprising when she is found dead the next morning. He has saved a soul, but the priest is not at all comforted. Even more troubling, he soon finds himself charged with having bullied the woman to an early grave by Chantal, who overheard their weighty exchange and has (perhaps willfully) misinterpreted it. Suddenly, the priest is more of an outcast than before, causing his mental and physical health to rapidly deteriorate. At last, he is a man nearing a premature death, waging one last internal battle for his own soul before quitting this harsh and cynical world.
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It's possible that no filmmaker elicits more divergently personal interpretations than Robert Bresson, and Diary of a Country Priest is no exception. Through the sickly personage of the titular character, the viewer is forced to confront the depths of their own beliefs, which can lead to wildly different readings of spiritual desolation or sublime, hard-won deliverance. However, where all can be in agreement is that this is work of supreme oppressiveness. Bresson demands the viewer's participation, and he expects us to engage in our own introspection. Few filmmakers so vehemently demand this level of commitment, but the reward for such effort can be great, if terribly unpleasant. Even today, in the face of the horrible scandals that have beleaguered the Catholic Church, it is impossible to not sympathize with the priest. He is a man of such pure spirituality that we want to see him touch his parishioners' lives in a profound manner, if only to see him at peace with himself. But he is doomed to failure, making each of Bresson's trademark fades-to-black heavier than the last. The film's pervasively dour tone is brilliantly enhanced by the great Leonce-Henri Burel's striking black-and-white cinematography, as well as Jean-Jacques Grunenwald's dirge-like score. Bresson would be at the height of his powers with this picture and his subsequent work, A Man Escaped (1956). But while these films are as close to perfect as artistic expression can be, they remain difficult to embrace which, frankly, may be the highest praise one can accord the work of Robert Bresson.
The Criterion Collection presents Diary of a Country Priest in an excellent full-frame transfer (1.33:1) that preserves the film's original aspect ratio, while the nicely cleaned-up audio is on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. Supplements include a feature-length commentary from film historian Peter Cowie, who seems most interested in praising Bresson's "cinema of the essential" by reciting passages from Bernanos's novel that were omitted in the adaptation. This proves illuminating and tiresome in fairly equal measure. Cowie is at his best when breaking down the film's pivotal scene between the priest and the Countess, or sharing anecdotes about Bresson's working relationship with his actors, who sometimes bristled at his heavy-handedness (Laydu is quoted as saying the director "works on an actor like a sculptor models his clay.") Rounding out the package is an essay by critic Frederic Bonnaud and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.