Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped is a perfect film; or as close to perfect as a film can get.
The French title of the film is Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (which translates as 'A Condemned Man Escapes') tells us what will happen but that doesn't seem to take anything from the film. A single viewing is likely to engage any viewer – whether they like foreign subtitled films or not. But multiple viewings prove what a masterful film this is.
The story is rather straight forward. During the German occupation a man named Fontaine is imprisoned. He is locked up and waits for his – most certainly guilty – verdict. While he waits he figures a way to get out of his cell. He plans for the escape and works toward that goal.
The film builds really good suspense in subtle but effective ways. And it is engrossing from start to finish. The best scenes, however, are the process shots. Or the scenes in which Fontaine chisels away throught the cracks in his cell door, makes rope out of clothes and blankets and makes hooks that he will use to with ropes to scale the walls of the prison. In these moments the film attains a certain grace for which Bresson is most well known.
And, in fact, the religious element of the film is much more central to the story than many viewers will acknowledge. The film's subtitle is 'The Wind Bloweth where it Listeth' [aka The Spirit breaths where it will], which is taken from John 3: 7-9. 'Listeth' is defined as to please or to choose. In the Gospel according to John Nicodemus asks Jesus "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother's womb and be born?" To which Jesus replies; "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."
Within the context of the movie Fontaine at one point reads these lines to an old man in the next cell in order to lift the man's spirits since he has given up hope of survival. But the quote also refers, in the larger context, to Fontaine's survival and ability to 'be born again' not in a direct religious sense but with regards to reviving his spirits and finding a reason to live in the prison as well as summon up the courage to escape.
But the film is not outwardly religious in that it sets out to indoctrinate us. Instead it has a much more personal spiritual feel to it; granted one grounded in reality. Bresson wanted to make the subtitle of the film "Aide-toi" or "Help yourself", which is part of the French expression, "Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera", meaning "Heaven helps those who help themselves." And, in fact, there is a scene at one point when the men are cleaning up ('at the trough') when a man says "Trust in God" and Fontaine responds to a guy by saying, "we have to help him". In this way Fontaine is staying true to his raison d'etre in the prison; God and prayer alone will not set Fontaine free. He has to do it himself.
A Man Escaped is possibly Robert Bresson's best movie because it fits his particular aesthetic very well. His films are stylistically about furtive glances, stiff deliberate movements, the repetitive shots of daily work, close-ups on hands and overall silence. The film is about as tightly structured as any film you are likely to ever watch. There is nary a wasted motion or an unnecessary scene.