Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 3
#222 Diary of a Country Priest
1951 // France // Robert Bresson
Criterion Collection (LINK)
All is Grace
Diary of a Country Priest is the landmark film that signifies a turning point in Bresson’s aesthetic while itself being Bresson’s first true great work. All the melodramatic flair in his two preceding works is distilled to essence, non-professional actors dominate the screen (except Marie-Monique Arkell as a minor yet significant character), austere and minimalistic composition and mise-en-scène are adopted after stripping all overabundance. Bresson’s philosophy of “cinematography” begins to take a perceptive style and form that continues to evolve and renounce the excess. All these are, at least partially, credible to the discovery of one of the greatest “model”, Claude Laydu, and his internally resonant face.
André Bazin praised the film but thought Bresson’s handling of the actors “amateurish,” apparently Bazin overlooked Bresson’s intention in striving the “realism,” albeit still immature at the time. The externalized acting of professional actors is deemed unrealistic and theatrical, perhaps the discovery of Claude Laydu, a “model” with a face that is borne to be the Priest of Ambricourt, help reform the aspiring philosophy in Bresson’s head. Claude Laydu’s performance maybe viewed as rigid, like an existence awkwardly misplaced, which is aptly be the paradoxical nature of the character he played, which is a priest assigned to his first parish but unwelcomed by the fellow parishioners immediately. The otherworldliness of the presence of the Priest of Ambricourt, remained unnamed throughout, is promptly perceptible in the opening scene. The first thing he encounters, unintentionally and unconsciously, is an adulterous affair between a couple, later identified as the Count (Jean Riveyre) and the governess Louise (Nicole Maurey). But as the entire film, like the source of adaption (Georges Bernanos’s most popular novel published in 1936), is structured in a narrative of diary, involving both the written words (visual) and the priest’s voiceover (aural), we could realize he is unaware of the intrusion.
The ardent and direct tendency of the priest to get involved in the parishioners’ personal affairs is exactly why he is responded with resistance. His unusual diet (hard beards and bad wine) associated with his increasingly disturbing stomach problem does not help building a healthy image and reputation. He’s not the most sociable type one would meet, but when a verbal tactic is necessary to reconnect a sorrowful and prideful mother to the estranged god, he fulfills the duty of the vocation perfectly. It’s one of the strongest conversation scene in Bresson’s oeuvre, involving an extended discussion between the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell), who is still mourning her lost young boy, and the internally conflicted priest. “With my back against the wall before this imperious woman, I looked like a guilty man, trying in vain to justify himself.” The priest is in battle against opposition, perhaps not of the tenacity of the Courtess’s will but of the absence of God. He needs to justify his faith for himself.
At night alone, he has the feeling that God has left him, as shown by his inability to pray. The spiritual void is further expanded after the death of Dr. Delbende (Antoine Balpêtré), a probable suicide as a result of his loss of faith and the priest’s incapability to “save” him. After which the Priest of Torcy (André Guibert, pseudonymn for the real psychoanalyst Adrien Borel), a more level-headed and pragmatic clergyman, tells him that the Church does not care if her priests are loved, but it’s more important to be respected and obeyed. The priest doesn’t earn his sanctity by belong solemn and respectable so to speak, it’s his innocent directness that eventually breaks through the countess’s defenses and frees her from the deadly sin that consumes her. Notwithstanding the absence of God, he has an internal strength that even he possesses the letter written by the Countess as the evidence of her gratification before her untimely death, he chooses not to use it to clear his name against the rumor that he’s responsible for her death from heartbreaking.
Indeed the film depicts both the spiritual and physical journey in a great subjective details, as his diary is as much a record of the parish as a dialectical monitoring of his own spiritual and physical life. The diary is a self-examination and represents a tendency to solitude. “Behind me, there was no longer the daily, familiar life from which one can escape. Behind me there was nothing. Before me, there was a wall, a blank wall.” The wall is the metaphor for his obstacle in sustaining his faith with the silence of God, as well as the tremendous physical pain arises in his stomach which ultimately leads to his death. After learning his health condition, the distraught priest visits Priest Dufréty (Bernard Hubrenne), a friend from the seminary who left the priesthood because of illness. Until his death, he doesn’t get the chance to go back to the parish to continue his commitment where people still takes him as a drunkard. His final words on the death bed, “what does it matter? All is grace,” are the reaffirmation of a life of faith, the evidence that in order to approach and be worthy of Christ, one has to accept and embrace the suffering. With The Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson commenced his own spiritual journey in the filmic terms. Albeit his later works inclined to be more cynical and accentuated in the absence of God, within his cinematic gracefulness, there are always traces of indomitable faith.