A young priest arrives in the French country village of Ambricourt to attend to his first parish, but the apathetic and hostile rural congregation rejects him immediately. Through his diary entries, the suffering young m... more »an relays a crisis of faith that threatens to drive him away from the village and from God. The fourth film by Robert Bresson (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne) finds the director beginning to implement his stylistic philosophy as a filmmaker, stripping away all inessential elements from his compositions, the dialogue and the music, and exacting a purity of image and sound. The DVD also features an audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, deleted scenes and the trailer.« less
Lewis P. (Turfseer) from NEW YORK, NY Reviewed on 10/24/2010...
Use of mean-spirited antagonists undermine otherwise thoughtful tale of modern-day Jesus figure
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Throughout the years, the 'passion story' of Jesus has always remained the bedrock of the Catholic church. Although respected, the story of the suffering of a man who lived 2,000 years ago no longer has the same impact it once did in earlier times. In our own time, the average 'believer' looks to the narratives of film for spiritual enlightenment. That's why the Catholic church of today has placed great importance on creating a list of great movies that reflect their values. 'Diary of a Country List' however is not on the Vatican Top 45. That's because director Robert Bresson's modern day Jesus figure, the Priest of Ambricourt, becomes a martyr after being rejected by the Church establishment.
Diary of a Country Priest is based on a novel written by George Bernanos in the early 30s. The film was made in 1950 but the pre-World War II setting is retained from the novel. The Priest (who is never named in the film) is an intense young man played by Claude Laydu (in his first film role). The Priest doesn't fit in at all in the village of Ambricourt. He actually suffers from what appears to be colitis (later diagnosed as stomach cancer) and subsists mainly on bread and wine. The rumor starts going around in the Village that he's an alcoholic. The village children don't understand his sophisticated catechisms except for one—Seraphita--who initially impresses the Priest with her knowledge of church doctrine. But when he asks her why she takes her studies so seriously, Seraphita mocks him by answering that he has beautiful eyes. Her schoolmates have all been listening to their conversation at the door to the rectory and burst out laughing at her retort.
The Priest obviously isn't very happy by the town's indifferent bordering on hostile reaction to his ministry but he trudges on. His mentor, the Priest of Torcy, is a much more outgoing and practical man who advises him to take control by establishing some kind of 'order' in dealing with his parishioners. Unfortunately, that's just not the Young Priest's style. He's much more blunt and often says exactly what's on his mind. The Priest's faith is tested early on when a physician he consulted for his stomach troubles ends up committing suicide.
The core of the narrative involves the Priest's relationship with a local Count and Countess who live on a nearby estate. The Priest hopes to convince the Count to donate money and some unused land for a youth center; the Count at first is receptive and promises to consider the Priest's proposal. Unfortunately, the Priest cannot ignore the fact that the Count is having an affair with the governess at the estate. To make matters worse, the Count's daughter, Chantal, is extremely angry with her father over his affair with the governess and threatens to run away (or even worse, commit suicide). The Priest dissuades the young girl from taking any rash action but refuses to be tactful with the Count, pointing out to him that his daughter is extremely troubled. The Count pegs the Priest as a meddler and makes it clear that his comments aren't welcome.
Even worse is the Priest's counseling sessions with the Countess who has been grieving for years over the death of her young son. At first the Countess makes it clear that she's lost all faith in God but the determined Priest manages to get her to look on the bright side once again. Ironically, the Countess drops dead hours after his last counseling session with her and the Count and the rest of the townspeople blame the Priest for 'exciting' the Countess and perhaps hastening (or even causing) her death. As a result, the priest is now 'persona non grata' in the town. He meets with the Priest of Torcy who patronizes him by insisting that his 'alcoholism' stems from (an early version of) fetal alcohol syndrome. He also advises the Priest not to meet with Chantal as he describes her as a 'demon' but the Priest insists he must minister to all—even those who are obviously lost.
In some respects, Bresson's updated passion tale echoes the original source material (i.e. The New Testament). Jesus's suffering is blamed on the Jews in the New Testament but here the Priest is cast off by cold and unfeeling townspeople supported by the punitive clergy. This appears to be the primary weakness of Bresson's story. Except for the mature Seraphita who comforts the Priest after he collapses due to abdominal pains and Chantal's cousin, the suave Olivier, who offers up a relaxing motorcycle ride as the Priest journeys to a neighboring town to obtain a consult with a physician, the bulk of the characters are all quite mean-spirited. It's the old stab-in-the-back mentality and Bresson is not immune to employing this device when serving up his newly minted Jesus figure.
There's more martyrdom in store for our hapless Priest. Sure enough, not only is he cast out by his parishioners but must endure the final crushing diagnosis: stomach cancer. The ordeal of fire is a modern one—instead of crucifixion on a cross, the Priest endures the modern 'crucifixion' of dying an agonizing death from cancer. The final image is one of the cross and like Jesus, the Priest maintains his faith despite all the suffering.
Bresson curiously has been described as an 'agnostic' but I think that's a misnomer. Rather, he accepts the Christian faith but views himself as outside the establishment. Diary of a Country Priest is worth watching a number of times, especially in terms of the gripping cinematography (reminiscent of films from the silent era) as well as the superb use of off-screen audio. Film scholar Peter Cowie's commentary is valuable as he compares the film to the novel. I disagree with his evaluation however, that the film is a masterpiece. The Diary has its thoughtful moments but in the end it's more propaganda than art.
Confessions of a Priest
Doug Anderson | Miami Beach, Florida United States | 08/24/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have not yet seen Bresson's earliest film The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne. That film was based on a Denis Diderot novel and that is not surprising as the Bresson films I have seen all have a distinctive literary quality. Diary Of A Country Priest as well as A Man Esaped(based on a memoir) & Pickpocket(based on a Dostoyevsky story) are all stories narrated to us by the protaganist. Diary of A Country Priest may be the most literary of them all for this film focuses almost exclusively on the thought processes of the priest. He tells his own story as though it were a confession. Bresson was a devout Roman Catholic but you don't have to be religious to appreciate this film because the priest struggles not so much with his faith but with his place in society. The film is quiet and is centered in this priests lonely introspections. He struggles not with faith but with making contact with another human being. Strangely enough his beliefs make him an outcast even to the other priests as they are much more practical minded and see the church as providing a practical social function. The other priests may believe in God but they live in the world comfortably. The young priest though is not practical and his religious feelings make him unable to function on any practical level. He has faith and yet he makes many of the villagers uncomfrotable because he is not a friendly gregarious presence as some of the other preists are but a quiet solemn one. He is really incapable of living on the surface of life and so he is incapable of the friendly kind of chatter that wins friends so when he goes on his rounds from home to home his social awkwardness tends to make people feel a bit uncomfortable. However when one woman has a true crisis of faith he is there for her in a way that one can see that it is this kind of situation he was made for. One of the more interesting and lighter aspects of the story is a friendship that develops between the priest and a young village girl. The girl is a rebel and tells lies and is drawn toward anything but the contemplative kind of life the priest lives and yet the two get along very well. The two both feel isolated from others for different reasons but somehow they provide each other with an interesting kind of company.
I think A Man Escaped & Pickpocket though both also quiet films are probably each more accessible than this one. A Man Escaped is about a resistance fighter who plans an elaborate escape from a Nazi prison, so though quiet and intorospective in its way we know there will eventually be a climax when he makes his attempted escape. Pickpocket is also very introspective but its a study of a criminal mind with plenty of exciting thefts and it ends with promise that the criminal has found something worth living for and so will change his ways. Diary of A Country Priest is quiet all the way through. There is beauty in it but its an austere kind of beauty. This film compared to A Man Escaped & Pickpocket takes a lot more patience and has the least entertainment value but provides the deepest and richest experience. Its a one of a kind film for a very discerning kind of filmgoer. All of Bressons films are made with great care (he took 3-4 years to make each one) and this one any filmgoer will be able to see is the one he put the most care into."
A Strange and Beautiful Film
Doug Anderson | 02/07/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Diary of a Country Priest, which made Bresson a name in French cinema, is one of the most perplexing films I've ever seen, despite being one of his earliest. Here he begins developing the minimalistic style that would mature throughout the rest of his unprolific career. The editing is furious and bizarre, unlike anything in any other film. Long, forboding shots of natural settings are closed in by barrages of short, clausterphobic indoor shots. Scenes often begin in the middle, or even after the important dramatic events. What I noticed most of all is that sound often preceeds the image -- and many time the screen is black for several seconds, leaving the viewer to absorb and reflect solely on the audio before the visuals kick in. And, oddly enough, reading of the diary is accompanied by the actual shot of the priest writing, defying the cinematic "rule" that sound isn't needed. Bresson makes full use of all cinematic effects, and listening to this film is as important as watching it.The film is adapted from the French conservative Catholic novelist Bernanos's book of the same title. It is faithful to some degree, but with small, very important departures. A young, sickly priest arrives in a miserable French village and is immediately outcasted by the townspeople. Living off of hard bread and sugared wine (one of many almost too-obvious religious symbols), he desperately tries to make a spiritual difference in the town. The more he tries, however, the more suspicion and scandal is heaped on him by the townspeople, especially the local count, who entertains a mistress while his wife and daughter fall into a bottomless pit of morbidity and hatred. His spiritual failures are echoed by his physical weakness, and at last his constitution gives out.The relationship between the material and the physical is, it seems to me, the most important theme. The Priest's failure to impact the worldly affairs of the town reveals the deep, frustrating relationship between these two worlds. The young Priest's frail physical being is in complete contrast with his saintliness and spiritual strength. The relationship here, too, is complicated. The physical weakness seems to point to a spiritual malady, as his physical isolation increases his spiritual doubt. The memorable performance of the ghastly thin and pale Claude Laydu as the Priest shows us a man, or rather a child, being crushed under these tremendous pressures. This is a film about man's loneliness, hardship, and, most of all, his failures.Another reviewer complains about the quality of this transfer. This surprises me, since Criterion has done an excellent job here. I simply don't see the problems they're referring to. Digitally Obsessed gave it an A grade, saying, "This is really just a stunning transfer, with strong blacks and nuance throughout the black-and-white palette; occasionally things look a little gauzy, but that seems to be due to some inferior source material, and no fault of the transfer." I completely agree.This is a beautiful film, and I'm glad to finally see it on DVD. In many ways it reminds me of Bergman's Winter Light, and its worth noting that Tarkovsky considered this his favorite film (Bergman's a close second). Criterion's transfer is, as usual, striking -- well worth the heavy price tag. The promised extra 11 minutes of deleted scenes didn't materialize, since Bresson's estate made it known that they didn't want the scenes released. This makes the extras seem extremely sparse: a trailer and an audio commentary track by Peter Cowie (which is some times insightful, some times rambling). Nevertheless, ita an extraordinary and unique film that all film lovers should look into."
A Film of Intense Luminosity
John C. Allan | San Francisco, CA USA | 02/25/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Bresson's screen adaptation of Bernanos' novel brilliantly plumbs the depths of one soul's quest for redemption. This film is a stirring masterpiece to be viewed time and again even by those to whom the overt religiosity may seem somewhat daunting. As the doomed country priest persecuted to martyrdom by virtually everyone around him, Claude Laydu turns in a remarkably nuanced performance. But it is Bresson's humanism which suffuses the work with its unique ardor and beauty. Needless to say a film of this depth of feeling could never be produced in today's rampantly commercial celluloid world! Forever Diary of a Country Priest will stand as a testament to the amazing creative genius of the peerless French director Robert Bresson."
The Face of Silence
Arch Llewellyn | 03/07/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Bresson set himself a special challenge in making a movie whose central drama is the writing of a diary. How do you make writing exciting on the screen, and how do you film the inwardness of a private journal? Bresson approaches the problem by filling the screen with Laydu's starved, haunting face at every opportunity. Plot, dialogue and acting take a back seat to the actor's troubled expressions, which Bresson shoots from a number of dramatic angles, especially the zoom-in close-up. While this does a lot to build atmosphere, it also left huge holes in my understanding of this troubled priest and his crisis. I found myself getting bored at yet another seemingly aimless scene where Laydu shivers or prays or writes in his journal. Bresson's technique is so effective that I felt I got the point--I had the essence of the character--after the first couple scenes. Still, the images of Laydu on a motorcycle and his midnight collapse in the country are unforgettable. Bresson's ideas about film are sometimes said to be more interesting than the films themselves. I'm not sure that's fair, but it certainly helps to know something about his hopes for making film a language of its own, free from the conventions of the theater, in approaching this quiet & arresting work."
Best of Bresson
Arch Llewellyn | 11/02/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Andrei Tarkovsky said once in an interview that among all the directors who made films of a spiritual nature,(among them Mizoguchi,Bergman, and Kurosawa) Bresson was the most lauded example. This was enough to send me in a frantic hurry to see every one of Bresson's movies. Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, and The Devil Probably were the ones which stood out for me the most, but it was The Diary of a Country Priest,which I saw lastly, that best represented his cinematic vision.(for me) There is almost always a character in his films that takes primacy throughout: Tarkovsky was right in seeing the internal strife of the individual in all of his films, and it is this quality in Diary which creates an absence in the film to which we are given only a glimpse through intricate gestures of the face and by the subtlety of the narrative. The man who played the priest was tremendous not because of any acting, but because of his sheer presence, which was simultaneously an absence. The journal entries are beautifully written and concurrently portray the life of a priest and how any sense of such a Life's selfhood is dispersed into the characters and settings of his periphery. I think this is important because otherwise the film would completely flounder under the weight of an enigma, and the viewer would be completely denied access to such a rich character. It is through his relationship with other members of the parish that we get to know this priest,(not completely I might add) and not simply by the actor who played the role. I really feel that this movie is as a whole the best of Bresson."