By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published March 31, 2011
The innovative and influential French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s life (1901-1999) spanned nearly the entirety of the 20th century, the era in which the motion picture became arguably the most relevant art form of the modern age. Yet in his 98 years, Bresson worked in film for less than half his life and made only 13 feature length pictures. And in a period when the movies became louder, more graphic, and more spectacular, Bresson contented himself with crafting a meticulous, quiet cinema that in its austerity and silence evokes profound feeling and inspires introspection through an immediately recognizable style.
Bresson has always been a favorite of cinephiles, but in recent years—aided in part by the Criterion Collection reissue of many of his best works—he has gained a wider audience. A major scholarly book on Bresson’s life and career (“Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film,” Tony Pipolo, Oxford University Press) appeared last year, and just a few weeks ago, the beloved Film Forum in New York ran a revival of perhaps his greatest work, “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951), which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
Bresson’s best work deals with themes of imprisonment, alienation, loneliness and redemption. Bresson was a prisoner of war in World War II, and his one-year confinement deeply influenced his understanding of modern man as prisoner. Bresson’s POW experience is most evident in “A Man Escaped” (1956), but it’s present as well in other notable films such as “Pickpocket” (1959) and “Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966). It’s especially visible in “Diary of a Country Priest,” the film that also most fully explores Catholicism, Bresson’s other great influence and theme.
When Bresson decided to film an adaption of Georges Bernanos’ 1937 prize-winning novel of the same name, he knew the task would be difficult. After all, the primary narrative device used in the book is that of the journal; translating the first person narration into a compelling film without relying too much upon what is said had already been proven nearly impossible by other directors who had tried to adapt the novel to the screen.
So, rather than filming a purely literal translation of the novel, Bresson faced the challenge of the adaptation as a test for his own theory of cinema. For Bresson, film had to distinguish itself from the theater; it had to distance itself from the mechanics of both stage acting and set design. Bresson believed that cinema had to be freed from any sense of artificial performance. Rather than exaggerating action and acting, Bresson emphasized subtle gestures and suggestion. Most importantly, Bresson understood the crucial importance of the image, how a cinematic shot possesses its own reality even as it relates to the images that precede and follow it. Further, he knew how mise en scene—the composition of the film frame—reflects and develops character and theme. He understood how film editing should create meaning and mood, as well as rhythm and movement. And he knew that sound was most effective when it was linked to character, either through association or a clever sort of dissociation that highlights alienation and displacement.
In “Diary of a Country Priest,” for example, we hear the wheels of a wagon before seeing the wagon enter the frame. We hear footsteps, doors, engines, before we can associate these sounds with their sources. And we see, always, the terrible loneliness and isolation of the earnest young priest of Ambricourt depicted in ways the novel simply could not do. Look how often Bresson frames the priest against the bars of windows or gates; watch how Bresson uses open spaces to emphasize the priest’s alienation, or how he positions his characters in the frame so that their emotional and spiritual distance from one another is visually articulated.
The story of the film is simple: a young priest, fresh from the seminary, is given his first parish in the French countryside. Nobody likes him. Indeed, some of his parishioners’ actions go beyond pettiness to approach outright cruelty. The only person who attends daily Mass mocks him. The only child who pays attention in catechism class betrays him. His own superior berates him as being weak and pathetic. As if this suffering weren’t enough, the priest is seriously ill; his stomach seems to tolerate only cheap wine, and he increasingly seeks comfort in drink as his ability to pray disappears.
All of this sounds terribly bleak, but the viewer of faith who sees the film will understand that the priest’s suffering and despair are not the point; rather, his refusal to succumb to doubt and hopelessness ultimately opens the way for his—and others’—redemption.
Most secular audiences and critics writing about the film today emphasize the opposite. They point to the depravity of the parish, the sickness of the priest, and the sense of incarceration and immobility that hovers over almost every scene. But Bresson was a filmmaker who believed in the possibility of deliverance and salvation, and the priest of Ambricourt, even in his dark night of the soul, never renounces the possibility of grace.
Though he was Catholic, Bresson is often characterized as being attracted as well to Jansenism, which professes among other things a belief in predestination, the idea that there is an elect group of people who are to be saved. But “Diary of a Country Priest,” and indeed the other films mentioned here, suggests that the gift of salvation is open to all, at any time and in any place or situation. At the same time, the film quietly but vividly depicts a modern world that is in dire need of salvation. By rejecting sentimentality while also affirming the persistence of grace, Bresson upholds the key theme of the original prose text even as he crafts a new work that is stylistically all his own.
When the young French filmmakers of the nouvelle vague, or new wave, were formulating their ideas for a personal cinema, Bresson was one of the very few French directors whose work they championed. In his films, especially “Diary of a Country Priest,” they saw how the essence of cinema is form, and they learned how that form, when crafted as well as it was by Bresson, could reflect the transcendent.
“Diary of a Country Priest” is slow and somber, and it requires patience and attention. But it is one of those rare films that persists in the memory long after it is over, and it is a perfect example of how cinema can beautifully illuminate the mystery of grace.