Sunday, 5 November 2017

Review #1,257: 'Diary of a Country Priest' (1951)

Robert Bresson is known for his stark and stripped-down worlds, where actors were employed as mere 'models' would rather than conduits of expression. The script and story would be where the emotion would resonate, and this would create a rather cold, blank exterior, when in fact there would be great power, grace and humanity lurking beneath its icy surface. Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson's third feature, was the first time the French director would fully embrace this approach, going so far as hiring non-professional actors for the bulk of his cast. Claude Laydu, who plays the titular priest, gives a performance of such complexity that it is often cited as the greatest in the history of motion pictures. Scenes would be re-shot if Bresson felt his actors were, well, acting too much, and Laydu often looks like he's suppressing so much he's going to explode.

When you understand what Bresson's goal was with Diary of a Country Priest, Laydu's performance becomes almost transcendent. The unnamed priest, who arrives in his new parish of the small commune of Ambricourt at the beginning of the film, is a weak, sickly presence. He is young, but small, gaunt and gently-spoken. Suffering from an unknown stomach ailment, he gets by on a diet of bread, fruit and wine. Ambricourt's inhabitants are mainly made up of poor but tough peasants and farmers, whose lives are so gruelling that they have little time for God. His arrival is met with scorn and distrust, and their reaction triggers feelings of rejection in the young priest. Even the children laugh at him, and Mass is attended by a sole woman whose intentions are far from Christian. He confides in the Priest of Torcy (Adrien Borel), a respected, straight-talking man of the cloth, who mentors the bewildered young man on what is expected of him. "A priest should never be loved," he is told, but seems perplexed at the cruelty of the world around him, and the lack of love within it.

The film really centres around a conversation between Laydu and the Countess (Rachel Berendt), an ageing woman who has never gotten over the death of her son, and whose husband is openly having an affair with a younger woman. The result of this conversation has the village gossiping, and it is this that sparks a remarkable show of faith by the young priest. Bresson's bleak approach compliments these moments well, refusing to over-blow the priest's epiphany before he inevitably starts to wrestle with it, recording all of his thoughts in a small diary. Laydu's performance is masterful, and it was surprising to learn that he later developed a puppet show for children, a world away from his sullen presence here. Alongside Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Rossellini's Francesco, giullare di Dio, Diary of a Country Priest is a masterpiece about Catholicism made by an agnostic or atheist, using the Bible's teachings and the institution itself as a way to tell more humanistic story of human anguish and struggle.

Directed by: Robert Bresson
Starring: Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyre, Adrien Borel, Rachel Bérendt, Nicole Maurey
Country: France

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Diary of a Country Priest (1951) on IMDb

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