Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Diary of a Country Priest is one of those film-school cornerstones that's easy to
appreciate but difficult to fully understand. The French New Wave film critic/directors
championed its ascetic economy and purity of vision. Fifty-four years later, it plays more
than ever as a refined work of art.
Nobody would describe this kind of story as brimming with commercial possibilities: A soulful priest
experiences one vocational failure after another while succumbing slowly to ill health. He's
God's Lonely Man, and this is perhaps the best film ever made about faith
and practical reality.
The new Priest of Ambricourt (Claude Leydu) finds only hostility and rejection in
his post, and grows more lonely and introspective. His innocence and lack of guile
unfortunately breed distrust and malice. The child Séraphita (Martine Lemaire) shows
promise in her catechism, but spreads malicious rumors about him. He withdraws to his diaries
and to a growing sickness that allows him to digest only bread and wine. The neighboring Priest of Torcy
(André Guibert) likes him, but concludes that he lacks the right mix of authority and
to be a successful priest. Local doctor Delbende (Antoine Balpêtré) sees in him a
kindred outcast. And he's shunned by his most influential parishioner when he attempts to
calm an inflammatory situation in the household of the local Count (Jean Riveyre).
We were essentially misled in film school when Paul Schrader told us that his inspiration for
Taxi Driver had been Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. There is a connection in
the impassioned diaries kept by both characters, and Schrader and Scorsese made a point of stressing
Travis Bickle's isolation as the root source of his violent alienation.
But Schrader's screenplay of angst and despair is an inversion of this film's scheme, which places
its Good Christian protagonist in circumstances less extreme and universally understandable.
The preacher involved is a Catholic but his Church isn't the central issue at stake; his essential
goodness and faith persist even when prayer and rituals no longer seem important to him. When his
efforts to perform his vocational mission are thwarted at every turn, a profound alienation drags
him down. His parishoners are already Catholic but shun him at the outset; almost nobody attends
Mass, and he never meets most of them.
Malicious rumors isolate the priest even further. He suffers physically and spiritually, yet is
never tempted to lash out or defend himself against the unspoken charges. He doesn't go begging
for friends or understanding, not even with his church superiors. He takes the weight of it all
upon himself, a toll expressed by the growing sickness in his stomach. He struggles and suffers
and endures. Thus a common fellow is revealed to have within him the stuff of spiritual purity
It's an entirely different movie than Dreyer's
Ordet. There are no miracles and no
superstition, just the numbing grief of suffering a spiritual crisis in an indifferent world. Other
films about saintly suffering (Ford's The Fugitive, for one) just don't compare - the problems
faced in Diary of a Country Priest would be fully understood by a viewer of any faith.
The country priest has to live in a world of nagging failure and rejection. He never knows exactly
what people have against him. The schoolgirl Séraphita turns out to be a conniving imp,
playing tricks and spreading lies to discredit him. He is easy prey for a stingy parishoner and the
haughty, adulterous Count.
Bresson's film is about faith and not the politics of religion. John Ford posited Henry Fonda's (also
nameless) priest as pure and perfect, a fault shared by the majority of pro-religious films. Bresson
also doesn't criticize or satirize the church the way Luis Buñuel does in his icy black
comedies. The closest Buñuel came to Bresson's compassion is at the end of Nazarín
when his priest-hero must finally break down and humbly accept bread from people as wretched as
himself. Like many other Buñuel characters, Nazarín's quest to become like Christ is
revealed as a trap of pride and a practical impossibility.
Bresson's world is as bleak as Buñuel's but Diary accepts the possibility of
unselfish goodness that Buñuel considers self-deception. The country priest is tempermentally
defenseless, but he also has inner reserves and patience and the instinct to not respond to
cruelties and provocations. At one point his superior advises that the parishoners will naturally
resent his innocence. A priest needs to be aggressive or they'll walk all over him.
The priest doesn't see his role to be that of an authority figure. He does seem to 'reach'
Séraphita at one point - possibly. In another pivotal scene, he has what may be a successful
dialogue with the Count's grieving and bitter wife. It's the one time he's able to find the words
and the courage to be briefly assertive. Unfortunately, the result is only more doubt and
Diary of a Country Priest is considered a classic because the purity of its theme is matched
by a purity of filmic expression. Bresson tells his tale in dozens of brief scenes divided by
fades that sometimes remain in black for an extra beat or two. We never become accustomed to places,
just as the priest remains uneasy in the tiny room in which he lives. He always seems a stranger
in his own town and in his own church. There are few establishing shots; the priest's detached
life is experienced in fragments. Other characters are seen only in isolated glimpses. A visit to
a city doctor at the end maroons him among strange surroundings and an ex-priest who was once his
friend, another lost soul who may be a drug addict.
Diary pages and spoken narration are beautifully used to express the priest's inner confusion, doubt
and despair. He doesn't face the world with any particular optimism or negativity, but instead a
sober acceptance. His narration is an attempt to be honest and not an opportunity to idealize
situations or express flights of fancy. Curiously, Bresson makes no attempt at poetry in the priest's
words, or to find any particular beauty in the images. There are no cinematic pleas for sympathy.
Only the unchanging melancholy of his face stands out, with its anxious, tortured eyes.
This is the only film I have seen that successfully makes a character emulate the suffering of Christ.
Diary of a Country Priest doesn't seem forced, and it doesn't construct unlikely characters or
concoct strange ironies to make its points. There are no miracles here except the miraculous human
Criterion's DVD of Diary of a Country Priest is an almost perfect transfer of yet another
classic previously experienced only in contrasty 16mm copies. It has a few negligible flaws,
light scratches and suchsame. The grays have an excellent range, and the naturalistic, honest
cinematography is accurately represented.
The list of extras is short but content-heavy. Frederic Bonnard's inner liner notes reprinted from
Sight and Sound encapsulize the context of the production with great clarity. Critic Peter
Cowie provides a terrific feature commentary that discusses at length issues around the film and
Bresson. He profiles author Georges Bernanos, and makes many comparisons between book and film.
We learn a lot about Bresson's unique casting instincts. Many of his most impressive actors, such
as the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell) and the Priest of Torcy (Andre Guibert) never made another
film. The unhappy doctor was in Henri-George Clouzot's Le Corbeau, and later played another
doctor in the Italian
I Vampiri. The Count's mistress Mrs.
Louise was played by Nicole Maurey, probably best known for her role in The Day of the Triffids.
The housekeeper/mistress at the end, Yvette (Jeanne) Étiévant, had a small but
effective part in George Franju's Eyes Without a Face.
The original French trailer is a mystery unto itself, making the film look like a standard drama.
Diary of a Country Priest is anything but.
One more odd observation: The soulful Claude Leydu is surely the most miraculous casting of all. When
he's at his most distraught, with his eyes bulging and his hair sticking up, Laydu's priest often
bears more than a passing resemblance to Jack Nance in Eraserhead.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Diary of a Country Priest rates:
Supplements: Commentary, essay, original trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 27, 2004
1. Alfred Hitchcock's
I Confess has some remarkable scenes and impressive acting, but it becomes terribly trite
when priest Montgomery Clift's plight is compared to that of Christ.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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