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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Diary of a Country Priest - Criterion Collection
Diary of a Country Priest - Criterion Collection
Criterion // Unrated // February 3, 2004
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted January 31, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

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 faith.

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.
 


The DVD:



Audio:

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.

Video:

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.

The Extras:

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 and interesting.

Final Thoughts:

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.

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