DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Le Journal d’un curé de campagne)

(director/writer: Robert Bresson; screenwriter: from the novel “Journal d’un Cure de Campagne” by Georges Bernanos; cinematographer: L.H. Burel; editor: Paulette Robert; music: Jean-Jacques Grunenwald; cast: Claude Laydu (The Priest of Ambricourt), Nicole Maurey (Louise), Andre Guibert (The Priest of Torcy), Jean Riveyre (The Count), Marie-Monique Arkell (The Countess), Nicole Ladmiral (Chantal), Martine Lemaire (Seraphita), Gaston Severin (The Canon), Balpetre (Dr. Delbende), Jean Etievant (The Housekeeper), Jean Danet (Olivier), Leon Arnel (Fabragars); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Leon Carre; The Criterion Collection; 1950)

“can be viewed as the closest thing to a genuine religious experience in film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Bresson (“Les Affaires publiques”/”Les Anges du Peche”/”Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne”) makes his fourth feature after a five-year absence a memorable one. It’s based on the novel “Journal d’un Cure de Campagne” by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. It’s a brilliantly conceived slow moving meditation about keeping the faith. It centers on a frail loner priest (Claude Laydu, a 23-year-old nonprofessional actor) who is assigned to his first parish–Ambricourt. He’s fearful he won’t be fit for duty because of his illness and must endure in his stoic way the slings of his indifferent but respectful country parishioners who sometimes get hostile because they resent him for his lack of social graces and simplicity, which they think mocks them. He’s living a Christ-like life of poverty and purity; and, because of an irritable stomach he can only digest bread soaked in wine and covered with sugar, which he says gives him a clear head; this painful condition goes undiagnosed until he’s forced to see a doctor in Lille and learns he has an incurable cancer.

To keep a record of his activities and thoughts, the anguished priest keeps a diary as he goes on a spiritual journey over his loss of faith that is misunderstood by his parishioners. Some even take him for a drunk, as he appears tipsy at times. A wealthy parishioner who earns his money in a slightly amoral way, Fabragars (Leon Arnel), makes funeral arrangements for his wife without the priest voicing his differences with his behavior, as he’s too timid to say what he feels and instead thinks to himself that “simple tasks are not the easiest.” The elderly Priest of Torcy (Andre Guibert, the director’s therapist) is the young priest’s friend and mentor who advises him to forget about being loved but being respected, and suggests what he can best give his parishioners is a sense of order and discipline. His hopes to reach the young and restless through catechism classes in First Communion is disproved when his favorite pupil Seraphita Dumouchel (Martine Lemaire) mocks his teaching attempts by saying she likes him because he has beautiful eyes, which she was put up to say by her classmates who wait for her after class and have a good laugh at the priest’s expense. Miss Louise (Nicole Maurey), the mistress of the Count (Jean Riveyre), is the only one to attend mass on a daily basis and as a favor asks the priest to intercede in a family matter he has no business sticking his nose in involving the Count over his dealings with the sadness of his daughter Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral). The girl proves to be a manipulative person who feigns suicide and forces the inexperienced priest to meet with her uncooperative tortured mother (Marie-Monique Arkell). The neurotic Countess is disappointed that her haughty husband is unfaithful, but has resigned herself to accepting her fate and chooses to do nothing about it. She has lost all faith because she cannot get over grieving the loss of her son. After conversing with the priest, someone she initially disliked, she miraculously finds renewed spiritual strength she thought was forever lost. But Chantal misinterprets her mother’s spiritual conversion and starts a smear campaign against the priest.

Faced with total failure as a priest, he nevertheless continues trying to save souls even if he doesn’t think he can save his own. What he does find is grace in the end, indicating there’s hope for all mankind, as on his death bed the last words he utters are “Does that matter, all is gone.” It can be viewed as the closest thing to a genuine religious experience in film. It’s typical Bressonian, visually spare, very moving, and without dogma even though it’s a Catholic film (though the showing of a cross on a banner as the last shot might be interpreted as a call for Christianity, that’s not necessarily so). Instead it’s a unique head trip taken as if by an alien (though someone whose alienation we should all be able to identify with) into the hermetic world of Bresson; a trip that also exorcises the demons from Hollywood moviemaking.

REVIEWED ON 3/27/2006 GRADE: A+   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/