Diary of a Country Priest
Robert Bresson, 1951, France
Criterion Number 222
Robert Bresson's luminous Diary of a Country Priest is the first film in an adjunct series of pieces I'd like to write on the portrayal of faith in film. Sometimes these will overlap the Criterion collection, sometimes not. This one does.
The 'simplest and most significant secrets' are the transparent thoughts of the Curé d'Ambricourt (Claude Laydu), a newly ordained priest who writes daily in his journal about the world of his calling. Lacking in both confidence and body strength, suffering from an illness not identified til late in the film, he leans against the walls of his spare rooms, fasting on wine-soaked bread and withering in the heat and stifling society. His crises are many: surrounded by a disaffected community steeped in mysterious intrigue, he is scorned often and made to feel superfluous and meaningless, a role he seems too ready to accept. So why do we care?
In her gorgeous essay, Spiritual Style in the films of Robert Bresson, Susan Sontag identifies Bresson as a 'reflective' filmmaker, belonging to a contemplative tradition that is not understood and which therefore has caused Bresson's work to languish largely unappreciated. The reflective or contemplative tradition in film, she says, stands in opposition to art which is emotionally immediate and accessible.
This is an excellent place to begin writing about faith in film, for if a film cannot be reflective, how does it find its faith-filled center? How does a film about faith resist being cold, as Bresson's films too often were seen to be in North America, without also succumbing to a sentimentalism or a desire for complete endings in which transformations are absolute. The thing I love about Journal d'un curé de campagne is how closely it models what it means to be a person of deep commitment to faith life, a commitment that is often filled with more darkness and doubt than rarefied inspiration and joy. The curé struggles not just with heat and illness, but with the demons within his own heart, and his journalling is the only activity that ties that inner torment to his physical being in the world. The struggle within this world is modelled in the slow pacing of narrative in the film. As Sontag writes, reflective art "postpones easy gratification". We can feel relieved at the appearance of an older wiser curé who fills our hero with warnings and strange encouragements - because he seems at least to be alive within his vocation, to have figured it out, to be plodding along. Our man is not nearly as clever.
Here, the fluid, almost motionless face of Claude Laydu is essential to Bresson's vision. His face is reminiscent of what Roland Barthes described in an essay on Garbo, as the neutrality onto which we can project almost any emotion. The camera lingers on his reactions more than on his actions: he is constantly in a state of receiving people, information, advice. His capacity for reception stands in ironic contrast to his own pursuit of God: like many gifted men and women of faith professions, he agonizes in prayer, longs to feel God, has moments of certain abandonment and clear visitation. He is unable to receive God cleanly into his heart and mind.
In the mission of priests lies the key to their own salvation. As the curé becomes more connected and involved with his constituents, he feels God more keenly, even as others find him intrusive and dismiss him. It is a transformative experience for the audience when we first see him smile, see his neutral face fill in with signs of fulfilment. The centerpiece scene of the film is a scene in which he guides a woman haunted by the death of a child into emotional freedom. It is an exquisite exchange of two people talking at a raw level rare in films before or since about what it means to surrender something to God, to submit pain to a higher power. The principle is hardly new; it's the first step for alcoholics and addicts, the first part of any taking of vows in vocational life. But it is rarely portrayed with a submission equal to that which it portrays. The woman hangs tight to her bitterness and disillusion, argues her way expertly around pastoral care and yet the unmoveable peace of the curé's commitment to her, neither conversionary nor evangelical, becomes impossible to resist. Falling to her knees, her surrender is a simple thing, not a heartbreaking dramatic climax.
I am someone who normally hates voiceover continuous subjective narration. In reading Sontag's essay, I understood why it did not bother me here. The very reason I feel it normally doesn't work is here the reason for its success: it does not further the action, it repeats it or doubles it. We hear the priest explain events and then see them, or more effectively, we see the events and then have him explain them. The doubling creates a rhythm that is almost liturgical, like the repetition of psalms or scriptural phrases or well-known hymns.
In the end, the curé cannot ultimately live in the world of his kind of success. When he is unable to break an angry child from her own commitment to sin, he resigns himself. His body submits to the creeping illness but we suspect that his mind might have done so too, given the chance. Instead, the deterioration of the body and his failure with the child allows the kind of release we saw in the bereaved mother: he surrenders more and more to the grace of his own enduring commitment. His death is not one of winning or losing but of resting comfortably in his own skin, aware of the light in his heart and reunited with it.