Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bresson's Graceful Classic

Diary of a Country Priest
Written and directed by Robert Bresson, based on
the novel by Georges Bernanos

Released by Rialto Pictures

Robert Bresson, who died in 1999 at age 98, made the subtlest of films filled with the tiniest of gestures—the curling of a lip, the pointing of a finger, the blinking of an eye—all shot with the most exquisite tact. His entire oeuvre (13 films in 40 years, with his last, L’Argent, released in 1983), which was built atop these minute movements, is above all about the idea of transcendence amid the mundane of the material world.

In Bresson’s 1951 masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest—returning to screens in a sparkling new print and with more complete and accurate English subtitles, prior to its inevitable Blu-ray release by the Criterion Collection—the protagonist comes to a small French town to take over his first local parish, only to find that the locals are anything but enamored with his arrival. The young girls in Communion class openly mock him; the lone woman seen attending his daily service has written an anonymous note telling him to leave; and the wealthy Countess, whom he tries to dissuade from her anger at God following her son’s death, will have none of it (when she dies after their meeting, her daughter accuses his words to her as contributing to her death).

The nameless priest is also suffering internally. Early on, he speaks of stomach problems, which only hard bread soaked in sugary wine can alleviate, and which causes him to appear drunk to the townspeople; much later, when he finally visits a doctor, he discovers that his ailment is much more serious than he could have imagined. Throughout all of this physical and psychological hardship, he dutifully keeps a diary to record his thoughts, which Bresson presents both by showing him writing down his entries and by having him narrate them in voiceover.

This most basic of plots shows only the basics, as usual with Bresson, who created his own form of minimalist cinematic expression that omitted anything he considered unessential. Although his later films would take this paring-down to its extreme, Diary of a Country Priest is a more transitional work in Bresson’s career. The sparingly-used musical score by Jean-Jacques Grunewald (the director would eventually do away with music altogether); the artful use of asynchronous, or offscreen, sound used as counterpoint to what’s onscreen (something he would perfect in Balthasar and Mouchette); and the multi-layered diary device, which shows the action just described in the writing and the narration: all contribute to a masterly, and ultimately moving, character study about the inexperienced young priest’s crisis of faith.

This Bressonian study of moral redemption ends with one of the most remarkable sequences in any of the director’s films, showing the priest finally achieving a state of grace. After he returns from hearing the doctor’s pessimistic diagnosis, the priest pens his final diary entry. In a long, uninterrupted take of nearly two minutes, he gets up from his bed and, with the greatest difficulty, shuffles to the window— barely able to stand, he sits down in a chair, the camera moves in for a close-up as he stares while contemplating his fate, and there’s a fade to black.

This shot is followed by an epilogue, as another voice intones the priest’s last words, which are, unsurprisingly, “All is grace”); during this final narration, the lone object onscreen, a cross, symbolizes that moment of transcendence. It’s oddly appropriate that an avowed agnostic created one of the most persuasive recreations of the importance of religious faith in all of cinema.

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