Monday, February 23, 2009
Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne) A Film by Robert Bresson (1951)
The final moments of a Robert Bresson film always leave me with a sense of great melancholy and loss, which I believe stems mainly from his use of non-actors who never appear again in his oeuvre, but also because his films frequently end on a shot which neither sneers at nor bemoans the death of a main character. In Diary of a Country Priest, that character is the titular priest, suffering abysmally from stomach cancer and an uninviting community that is driving him further and further from God. Bresson looks at his death - which is the apogee of his spiritual character study - in a matter-of-fact manner, treating it as a harsh inevitability while also leaving deceptive whiffs of its metaphysical significance.
Not only is the death inevitable in the mortal sense, Bresson makes us well aware that it is approaching in a narrative sense too. There is no question as to where his suffering is taking him as reflected by the impending Ambricourt, which gives Claude Laydu's young priest the connotation of Christ. He is turned away from the congregation, and the townspeople - save one cute schoolgirl who Bresson makes about as fun and youthful as a stone - also flick him off on account of his austerity, adhering to his depressing diet of wine and bread with utmost rigor. Eventually he begins to lose grip of God and in his attempts to offer guidance to the townspeople, he is as inept as Tomas in Bergman's Winter Light. The priest is a character more or less congruent to the donkey Balthasar, suffering from the hostility of men and being about as classically human as a donkey. He is a staunchly religious figure, one of the great religious characters ever put on screen.
If he's the best, it's because Bresson brings such stunning realism to the entire film. It may be a stretch to say, but Diary of a Country Priest is likely the most accessible launching point for a viewer new to Bresson's filmmaking. It's only his fourth feature, and more specifically, his first that starts to apply his stylistic philosophy. Therefore, the benchmarks of his style - hyper-formal direction, stiff non-actors (or "models"), extreme narrative and cinematographic simplicity - are less overt; the characters are by no means animatronic and there is even a fully functional score, an element Bresson eliminated entirely as his career progressed. The outstanding sense of isolation however, is present as ever; atmospheric sounds tend to dissipate as soon as they arrive and the camera carefully reveals the priest boxed inside his stark room by windows and doors. L.H. Burel, who worked as cinematographer for the film, originally scoffed at Bresson's preference for foggy, slightly unfocused footage, however the effect is tranquil. The diffused light seeping in through the windows beautifully adds irony to the priest's crisis of faith. Diary of a Country Priest is without a question another one of Robert Bresson's devastating, essential works.