This is kind of a big one — our first Robert Bresson film at Fan With a Movie Yammer. Bresson is the most decorated director on the Sight & Sound list, with a remarkable seven films (more than half his total output) earning a spot on the list. Among the most respected and revered of French directors, Bresson is known for his minimalism and use of non-professional actors, and his films are credited with paving the way for the French New Wave of cinema. The director’s third feature, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1951), is his first film on the Sight & Sound list. Featuring unorthodox plotting and a distinctly spiritual bent, Diary of a Country Priest follows the travails of a young priest who has just received control over his first parish. There he meets suspicion and resentment from his parishioners, and his internal struggles — both bodily and spiritually — threaten to consume him. Spare and elegant, but displaying an ever tightening emotional tension (and a wry, satiric bent), Diary of a Country Priest is an exploration of what it means to find consolation in a world full of tragedies and malice. (115 min.)
J. – This is not just the first Bresson film for this blog, but also the first for both of us. To be honest, I am rather ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of Bresson prior to looking at the Sight & Sound list. I consider myself to be at least reasonably knowledgeable about movies, so it was shock to see that the most listed director was someone I’d never heard of. Thankfully, Diary of a Country Priest has corrected this gross shortcoming — but, ah, what to make of it?
This is a tough one — it’s hard to know what to latch onto with this film. There is much to enjoy — and even more to admire — but I was ultimately left a bit puzzled by the whole thing. What is this film saying? I think we need to get at that question in the course of this discussion, S., but maybe it is better to start with more manageable segments of the puzzle — if we can sort out the edges perhaps the middle will also take shape.
I suppose the thing that leapt out at me right out the gate is that this film does not look or feel like a film from 1951. The framing of the shots, the sound design, and the transitions and edits immediately made me think of films from the late 20s and early 30s. Specifically they reminded me of Carl Theodor Dreyer. I have no idea whether Bresson was a fan of Dreyer, but (wittingly or not) there is a ton of Joan of Arc and Vampyr in this movie’s DNA. This is particularly true of outdoor shots and when the titular (unnamed) priest has his paroxysms of stomach pain, which are eerily reminiscent of the moments of holy ecstasy experienced by Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. And the framing device of having the priest constantly writing in his journal was reminiscent of the title cards one sees in silent films (or even more directly, like the book in Vampyr). That said, I don’t think the tone and temperament of the film was in keeping with the silents or with Dreyer. The forceful, narrative directness of silent dramas and the fatalistic, fire-and-brimstone urgency of Dreyer are replaced by what I might best refer to as a meandering soulfulness in Diary of a Country Priest. Would you agree with that, S.?
S. – Dreyer was strongly brought to mind throughout this piece. The intensity generated through the tight shots that mostly involved only a single actor on screen, along with the very few words spoken by the tormented priest felt very much from the Dreyer playbook. I think where it diverged sharply was in the loose narrative, this film was all feelings with little cohesion. What you have termed meandering soulfulness felt more to me like lost wandering in the woods (in fact that happens too!), it is a study of despair. This seemed quite intentional on the part of Bresson, the brief interludes where other characters were brought into the priest’s sphere introduced complex and intriguing possibilities, that for the most part were left unexplored. The effect was to watch a young man in difficult circumstances and without the capacity to connect with the people around him sink beyond help. Despite the grim path the film doggedly pursues there were some great interactions along the way. The relationship between the young priest and the more experienced priest from Torcy is established early, the brusque manner of the elder priest gradually mellows toward the earnest younger man, yet the inability of the latter to break free of his inner struggle leaves them without a meaningful bond. The other compelling relationship was the priest’s counselling of the Countess, whose mourning for her lost son had crippled her ability to engage with life. Watching the two troubled souls learn how to speak to each other was wonderfully executed and a pivotal moment for the priest in a very unconventional film.
J. – I want to address what you said about the film being lost in the woods — because I don’t think it was lost or wallowing in despair. I agree that the film frequently did not follow through with the interesting narrative possibilities found in the characters with which and scenarios in which the priest got embroiled. Likewise I agree that the priest never found the means to communicate with his parish. But I disagree wholeheartedly that he sank beyond help. This film was not a study in despair, but rather a study in consolation. It is notable that the climax of the first half of the film is that great scene you mentioned with the Countess, where she finally finds solace after years of carrying the death of her son with her. And the big scenes in the latter stage of the film are the priest smiling for the first time in the film as he encounters an empathetic soul on a motorcycle and when he finds purpose and salvation through his interaction with the mistress of his former-priest friend.
But I’m jumping ahead.
I confess I struggled a bit with the choppiness of the narrative in the first half hour — there’s that lost in the woods feeling. Some scenes are little more than wordless flashes, and the frequent shots of the pen scribbling words into the diary were a distraction. But it is a film that is far more than its constituent parts. The jumble of scenes and the sometimes cryptic exchanges between characters ultimately brought a tension to the proceedings for me, and the writing in the journal ceased to be uninteresting and started taking on an almost ritualistic air that codified the growing unease among all parties. The effect was to create something akin to a thriller with no criminals. Strangely enough, once I realized that there was not going to be any story, per se, I became more invested in the film and its unorthodox flow and character beats. And I really, really liked those character beats; I found all of the characters in the film to be very interesting — sometimes perhaps too interesting for the modest story being framed around them. But I think the film takes great pains to make the story not be about the fascinating eccentrics that surround the priest — it is about their effect on him (an interesting twist on the typical formula where an enthusiastic newcomer turns around the lives of those around him). Which I suppose leads me to ask, what did you think about our titular hero?
S. – I was worried about the priest from the start, in fact from the moment he shared how useful his bicycle was for getting around town even though he had no strength to pedal up the hills. His purity of purpose only served to exaggerate the ugliness of the parish members around him. He was almost a Jesus-like figure attempting to absorb the suffering of everyone he met, as though he hoped that alone could make them better people. Perhaps it is the diary-writing device used throughout that made it feel like everything was internalised without much outward action (the dialogue-driven scene with the Countess being the outstanding exception). It seems we have a very different response as how that internalisation affected his place in society, to me it seemed very much that he went from a priest on a precipice between growing into a spiritual leader for his parish and falling away from society entirely.
An element that I thought was handled expertly by Bresson was the issue of his frail health. For a large portion of the film it is unclear whether the priest’s troubles are due to anxiety alone or if there is also a physical component. When it is established that he does in fact have a terminal illness there is almost an air of relief on his part, as though he was himself unsure. From this late point the film takes on a different setting, one that is difficult to reconcile with the anguished priest in his miserable parish. The disconnect is somewhat jarring and I felt somewhat left behind in the country parish of odd and frequently nasty characters. You seemed more responsive to the change of scene though, J.
J. – I agree that the matter of the priest’s ailment was handled fantastically — there were elements of madness and ecstasy to his suffering that seemed to rule out an actual physical problem. But when the terminal diagnosis did come, I assumed it was going to be the thing that set the priest free — and indeed it does, but not in the manner I anticipated (and probably wanted at the time). See, I don’t think he had a purity of purpose at any point in the film except the very end. He was unsure of himself and unsteady among others — pained by his ailment but also his inability to communicate effectively. But what he did have in abundance was empathy, his suffering gave him an empathy for the suffering of others. And I think it is telling that he finds himself overpowered and outmatched by those who are not suffering — the Count, the Count’s wilful daughter, the man who wants a discount funeral for his wife, and even the priest from Torcy. But he forms deep and meaningful connections with those who are suffering or feel outside society — the doctor, the Countess, the man on the motorcycle, the cleaning woman and ex-priest living in sin. In this regard he is rather Christ-like, but he is a Christ figure who is constantly outwitted by the Pharisees.
So when he received his diagnosis I figured he would go back to the parish and lay down the law with everyone as a man with nothing to lose. But the film does not go this way — it leaves all those issues unresolved. Instead he finds a different sort of resolve — a more particular solace — in talking with the cleaning woman. It was an unexpected direction for the film to take — distinctly anticlimactic. I struggled with that as we were watching it, but it has stayed with me. Anticlimaxes are a tricky thing in films, and run a big risk of being unsatisfying. But the ending of this film was in keeping with the manner in which it had been constructed up to that point. The connective tissue between characters was always thin, in no small part (I think) because the film insists we need to find our own ways, our own consolation. But is that the message? Because this is not a story, it is a film of moments (many of them excellent) — does that collection of moments ultimately have a point?
S. – I admit that when this movie ended I was at a loss, it felt like a total downer and I did not know what it was trying to say. I was frustrated by the lack of access to the interesting group of parishioners that we were given no hope of understanding either their motivations or intentions. Instead we watched a frail man pass through the lives of various vital people and reach his demise. Diary of a Country Priest certainly does not follow a conventional narrative arc. My immediate reaction was to feel dissatisfied, yet it has teased at me since watching it, a sure sign that it has made an impression. I have to admit to feeling somewhat frustrated by this film, which is observation more than story, yet I am looking forward to seeing more of what Bresson has in store.