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Diary of a Country Priest
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.
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 and sainthood.
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 discouragement.
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 spirit. 1
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.