A quite, young, socially awkward priest (Claude Laydu) is assigned a
small parish in France as his first assignment. He is sickly, and
can only eat stale bread soaked in wine and sugar, but will not let his
health stop him from tending to the villagers religious needs. Except
they don't want him to aide them. The adults regard the new priest
with distain and the children ridicule him. His consumption of wine
starts the rumor that he is an alcoholic. Feeling isolated and alone,
the priest becomes more ill. His inability to become accepted by
the locals is a source of much anxiety and ultimately causes a crisis in
This movie is about devotion, faith, alienation, and, ultimately, failure.
Try as he might, the priest can not break down the wall between himself
and the rest of the villagers. The hard working farmers treat the
priest's devotion and altruism with distrust. They don't see what
a priest can offer them. Every positive step that he takes creates
more cynicism and doubt. Like the Christ that he worships, the priest
quietly suffers while trying to save the people under his care.
Bresson's austere creation is a brilliantly minimalist film. There
is nothing in the movie that isn't necessary. From the sets to the
dialog everything is pared to its bare essence. This accentuates
the young priests loneliness and isolation from the rest of the community,
and by association, the world.
Sound plays a very important role in this movie, and it is masterfully
utilized. Sounds are often used in the place of a visual shot.
Waiting at a train station the priest is talking to a young man in the
French Forging Legion. A loud whistle sounds as the train pulls into
the station, but the train itself is never shown. Again, Bresson
pares everything down to its core.
Ironically, sound is not frequently used. It is almost like a
silent film for the 1920's with the intertitles read aloud. This
tactic is very powerful, since when there are sound effects, they are important
and sever a propose. Sound is not used just to fill the audio track.
It is used to underline a scene, or imply an event, or even to be able
to delete a shot like the train pulling into the station mentioned above.
The priest's crisis of faith, and the minimalist setting, instantly
brings to mind Dryer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc." Both movies
are deal brutally with faith and how faith is tested by being abandoned,
and both are things of beauty to watch.
Though I am enamored of Dryer's Joan of Arc, I found this film to not
work quite as well. Some of the problems I had with it are cultural.
There is a scene where a young girl tell the priest that she is studying
for her first communion, not because she wants to go through the ceremony,
but because the priest has beautiful eyes. The priest wonders why
she would play a cruel joke on him like that. I didn't take it to
be a trick at all, and thought it curious that the priest would.
I also thought that Claude Laydu's acting was wooden, while I found Renée
Falconetti's Joan to be thoughtful and inspiring.
In a film where sound plays such an important roll, the sound quality
is of a high concern. Thankfully Criterion did an excellent job restoring
the audio track. Presented in its original French with optional English
subtitles, the mono sound was surprisingly clear and crisp. The sound
of the church bells ringing was loud and dynamic, with no distortion or
cracking. The subtle sounds that infuse this movie were accurately
reproduced and add a whole extra dimension to the film. The musical
score sounded very clear and full. There was no evidence of hiss
or other audio imperfections. An excellent sound track.
The movie was presented with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The credits
seemed to be very slightly off center, with the very left side of the first
column of letters slightly cut off. The right side had no such problems.
This was very minor.
The picture quality was excellent. A superb job was done restoring
this black and white film to its original splendor. The image was
clean and clear, and details were easy to discern. There were only
the most minor digital artifacts present that are only visible on close
inspection. The few problems I had with the image were do to the
way the picture was filmed. In the commentary, it was mentioned the
lens had a very light gauze over it during filming, this gives the picture
a slightly indistinct look. The blacks were accurately reproduced,
but there was not a lot of details visible in them. Only the largest
folds and wrinkles in the priest's black cloak were visible, but it is
my belief that this was an intentional effect.
In addition to a trailer, this disc has a commentary track by film scholar
Peter Cowie. Cowie is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about this
film, and points out many interesting details. He provides a good
amount of information about the actors and crew (including the unfortunate
fate of actress Nicole Ladmiral,) and some background detail about France
and Catholicism at the time the movie takes place. Unfortunately
he also makes many comparisons between the novel the movie was based on,
and the finished film. Many scenes in the film are compared
to how they were written in the novel, and Cowie reads long passages from
the book. In my opinion, the differences were very minor and knowledge
of these alterations did not gain the viewer any deeper understanding of
the film. I felt these readings from the book were superfluous and
interrupted the flow of the commentary. On the positive side, Cowie
did manage to speak throughout the whole film, and with the exception of
the copious film-to-novel comparisons, his commentary was very informative
An interesting minimalist film, Diary of a Country Priest is
well worth watching for the masterful use of sound and sparse style.
While I found the story mostly effective, there were aspects that I found
lacking that didn't allow me to become as fully immersed in the movie as
I would have liked. The audio and video quality are top-notch, making
this DVD an easy one to be recommended.