Léon Morin, prêtre (1961)


(director/writer: Jean-Pierre Melville; cinematographer: Henri Decaë; editors: Jacqueline Meppiel/Nadine Marquand/Marie-Josephe Yoyotte; cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Leon Morin), Emmanuelle Riva (Barny), Irene Tunc (Christine Sangredin), Nicole Mirel (Sabine Levy), Marco Behar (Edelman); Runtime: 128; Rome-Paris Films; 1961-Fr./Italy)
“Melville’s film is a spiritual and an intelligent one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

How many other directors could handle with great deftness the innuendos of this possible sexually explosive relationship between an attractive and problematic widow (Emmanuelle) and a handsome 26-year-old priest (Belmondo), during the German occupation of a small French town? Melville establishes his exquisite control of the subject matter by allowing the story to unfold in such a perfectly normal manner by using his understanding of life to pull it off so smoothly. His sense of how to tell a story has influenced many directors through his long career starting in the late ’40s and that list would include the great director, Bresson. He developed the same style and feel for filmmaking as Melville and who, at times, outdoes Melville’s Melville, giving some the false impression that Melville imitated Bresson.

Melville’s film is a spiritual and an intelligent one about surviving the occupation. He connects the deportation of the Jews with his personal savior, Jesus Christ, whom he reminds us, died as a Jew. The implication for those who think that because they are Christians they don’t have to be concerned about what is happening to the Jews, are sorely mistaken. For Melville, it’s common sense to believe if Jesus was around today, it would be as a Jew taken away to the death camps.

The priest sees his task in life is to fulfill his Christian vows of helping those who need to be helped, no matter what they believe in. He appeals especially to the women in town as a modern day Christ, that results in some very complex emotional questions raised relating to the affairs of the heart and spirit.

Belmondo’s performance as a priest who questions authority and is not afraid of what others might think, is affecting. He leaves himself vulnerable to public opinion when he openly maintains a very close relationship with the attractive widow Barny. Belmondo’s argument for a belief in God couldn’t be put forth with more verve and intelligence; even though, it didn’t convince me, as he was not challenged with counter arguments by anyone who had the ability to present a cogent counter-argument. Nevertheless, this film moved me to further expand what I think about religion as something we all have in our heart but which must be nurtured with tenderness and love to bloom.