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Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951)

 

Warning: Spoilers within, since I discuss the ending mostly... This is probably best read after viewing the film, if at all...:

Apology: I cobbled this together from an old e-mail once I recoiled in horror that I hadn't posted a review. Hopefully, it's still of some use:

 

    French director Robert Bresson delivers a seemingly simple account of one priestís spiritual challenges in his masterful, moving Diary of a Country Priest. The story is delivered in a style that only seems simple on a superficial level. For example, Bressonís generally placid camera zooms only as characters realize something, or come closer to some sort of grace. All of his cameraís movements and editing choices worked similarly, so the movie develops a genuine language that exists to help to push the acting to the next level of audience understanding. Other directors move their camera to accent their actorsí performances, to be sure, but rarely is the methodology applied so rigorously and successfully. When the priest faints near the end of the film the movie fades to black, it is only a precursor to the filmís true ending, which presents a death that is even more tangible to the audience: the end of the film. For those watching the world that Bresson created, and for the priest in the film, that final fade to black marks the death of the experience, the death of the characters in the world (who all die vicariously through the priest, even if they don't believe in him, since the volume of faith in the world's reduced), and the death of the priest himself.

   

    This sounds nihilistic when I read it over and think it through, but Bresson only uses this negativity as a jumping off point by which we can evaluate the earlier actions of the film. Because we can equate the end of film with the end of filmís world, and the end of that with the end of the people in the world, we must feel the loss of what weíve witnessed within ourselves. Therefore, we must also understand that the priestís arrival at grace equals his parishionersí arrival at grace and vicariously represents the audienceís arrival at grace. These ideas are intrinsic to what the film is trying to say, I think, and they did make me feel that all the miserable suffering that the priest goes through really matters (I loved the reaction shots of the priest near the end where you can't tell if he's grimacing because he's emotionally disturbed by the state of the retired priest of if he's feeling physical pain), since it presses him toward his revelation. People often throw the word transcendent around talking about Bresson, but if you look what it is that is being transcended here, itís actually quite radical. The physical pain of the priest and the collective apathy that surround him are obviously overcome, but the ending is structured so that it also blows away the small scale of this story and the boundaries of cinema itself, telling us that the lives of its characters exist only with our perception of them, if that makes sense. The last shot of the cross signifies our collective arrival at grace. Since one man has made it there,  there's hope for us all (and since ďall is graceĒ, we've already made it too, I suppose, if weíre open to that possibility). The image of the cross on the movie screen is overpowering because it explicitly shows us that ďall is graceĒ because itís literally the only thing on the movie screen in the last shot. This approach doesnít seem to preach at me so much as make me mourn a little when the screen fades to black and the movie ends, because it takes that revelation away from me (even as Iím free to carry it in my memory). I wonder a bit if I'm reading too much into the movie's language, but it while I watched the film it seemed absolutely apparent to me that this was why Bresson filmed things this way. Whether that was indeed his intent, I have no clue. In retrospect, I canít say that I really care either way.

 

* * * * Masterpiece

 

01-05-02

 

Jeremy Heilman