Provost's Film Series
March 16, 2006
There is indeed a diary in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950), and when we see a man writing in his “cahier” the hand holding the pen is Bresson’s own. That autobiographical touch reveals how deeply personal this film was for its meticulous, intensively spiritual director. Although he never won a large audience during his own lifetime, Bresson secured the fervent devotion of film critics for his innovative minimalism as well as his themes of spiritual alienation. After surviving a year as a German POW during World War II, Bresson traveled to Rome to research a screenplay on Saint Ignatius of Loyola, but when that project stalled he chose to adapt a fictional autobiography about a country priest by the Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos. According to Stephen Greyhanus, that screenplay became “one of the most deeply Catholic films” ever made, a story that “contemplates the spiritual meaning of suffering and persecution, conversion and incorrigibility, and the dark night of the soul with a rigor and insight evocative of Augustine’s Confessions or Thérese’s Story of a Soul.”
The Erosion of Faith
Now, more than half a century after the film’s release, the austere black-and-white cinematography and somber Catholicism may seem remnants of a different era, but the film continues to win the admiration and affection of modern viewers. Winner of the Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice Film Festival, Diary is a cinematic milestone of the first order. On the heels of World War II, it reveals the heartache of a Catholic Church losing its hold on the French people. The story of a sincere priest who meets contempt and resistance in the small village of Ambricourt, Diary captures the personal pain that accompanies the erosion of faith within Western Europe. Continually belittled by a village more at ease with red wine than spiritual light, the idealistic country priest seems destined for theological doubt and clinical depression himself; in fact, the young man’s mentor, a priest from nearby Torcy, is played by Adrian Borel, a psychiatrist rather than an actor (according to some reports, Borel was Bresson’s own therapist). When the mentor from Torcy tells the young priest that his job is simply to “keep order all day long, knowing that disorder will win out tomorrow,” we have reason to fear that faith has become more form than conviction.
Bresson, however, preferred the French title “metteur en ordre” (a maker of order) to the common “metteur en scéne” (the stager of a scene) to describe his own role. Like Bresson, who painstakingly arranges the details of his material in a coherent, tight order, the young priest is not interested in staging a ritual Catholicism but in recovering the spiritual order and emotional balance of his community. He is, in many ways, an intruder into this grim modern world, a troublesome witness to the cynicism and adultery that have become virtually ingrained in the landscape. It is the priest’s refusal to give up—his desire to continue searching for purpose and redemption in the face of agnosticism and scorn—that reveals the film’s courage. Unlike other biblical epics or religious films from its era, Diary does not simply rework pietistic clichés. As Jean-Michel Frodon, chief critic at Le Monde, observes, Diary tries to show “what the Christian message is based on—a message that cinema is designed to translate into images and sounds: the word made into flesh. Cinema is the concrete and communal accomplishment of the Mystery of the Incarnation.” Bresson’s film strives to find a religious light even as its stark imagery “demonstrates that everything can become possible: joking with death, writing on the screen, playing with desire, watching the insights of the psyche, and confronting religious questions.” It neither backs away from spiritual doubt nor abandons spiritual hope.
A second reason that Diary remains a milestone is its minimalist style, which aptly fits the theme of spiritual drought. Frédérick Bonnaud contends that Diary is “truly a rupture in the history of cinema. . . . Rather than an escape, Bresson wanted nothing less than a radical reform of cinema’s perception of reality.” Admittedly, Bresson’s work does draw upon the French realism of the mid-twentieth century. He often uses chiaroscuro lighting, the stark contrast between a brightly lit object in the foreground and the surrounding darkness. In fact, Bonnaud claims that Diary “reflects the standardized pitch-black rancidness that the critic-filmmakers of the soon-to-arrive New Wave would rail against.” But Bresson also adopts innovations that signal a break with French film conventions. He wanted a cinema that was chiseled to its essentials. Reportedly, he cut 47 minutes from the final version because those scenes “refused of themselves to form part of the composition of the film.” The story often proceeds elliptically; brief allusions or simple gestures reveal events that occur between scenes. As André Bazin argues, “It would be in vain to look for [the film’s] devastating beauty simply in what is explicit. I doubt if the individual frames in any other film, taken separately, are so deceptive.”
The minimalism is also evident in Bresson’s guidance of the performers. With Diary, his fourth film, he began to avoid professional actors in the lead roles, casting the unknown Claude Laydu as the priest. Laydu was chosen for his devout Catholicism rather than his dramatic training. Bresson referred to his cast not as actors but as “models,” and he encouraged some intentionally flat, nearly expressionless performances. When speaking of his models, Bresson observed: “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.” Laydu’s placid personality does not immediately win the audience’s sympathy, making his isolation all the more vivid.
With the performances deliberately muted, the camera and the soundtrack do much of the work. Rather than the voice inflections of the characters, a zooming lens provides the thematic emphasis. Convinced that each scene modifies the previous one, Bresson uses several slow fade-outs to blend images. The film’s final fadeout has been called “transcendent,” a metaphor with multiple possibilities of meaning. Sounds are often more revealing than sight. So much of the village life and vitality of the film—carts passing, dogs barking, hunters in the woods and gardeners raking—can be heard and not seen, as if these parts of everyday life were beyond the priest’s own experience. Indeed, the sounds and the visual images of the film reinforce the priest’s alienation. Daytime scenes of the French village life were shot with a luminous, dreamy quality, while the interior scenes of the priest at night, when he is most alone, display a sharp-edged, close-up intensity. Bresson frames the priest often in gates, doors and windows, emphasizing the barriers that the young priest must cross to connect with his people. Rising once from sleep in a spirit of hopefulness, the priest thinks for a moment that someone has called him from outside. But no one is there. The open windows entice, but the silent barriers remain.