Monday, April 25, 2011


Diary of a Country Priest(1951), the poetic and hauntingly spiritual story of a young priest struggling for acceptance and, ultimately, survival, screened at LACMA this weekend in new 35mm print. The film, written and directed by Robert Bresson, is as literary a film as I've ever seen; the kind whose subtitles dissolve before you're ready to let go of the thought. Although the pacing is slow, even tedious, every scene is meticulously thought out. From a school girl's floating head in a confessional, to the low-angle shot of a priest on a motorbike, each frame is embedded with thought and dark spirituality. The first frame we see is of the priest's diary; beautiful scripted prose introducing his philosophy on journaling, revealed from behind a piece of blotting paper. The story, narrated by the priest's diary, is echoed in the subtle evolution of his script: from flowery cursive ink, to scribbled, uneven pencil. The diary entries; the first of hope and opinion, the last of despair, bookend the film. Diary of a Country Priest is also a great test for an actor, as the takes are long and the camera lingers in close-up.  Bresson states in Notes on the Cinematographer; "hide the ideas, but so that people can find them. The most important will be the most hidden." This philosophy is never more clear than in Diary of a Country Priest.

The following is an excerpt from Andre Basin's Le Journal d'un Cure de Campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson:

If Diary of a Country Priest impresses us as a masterpiece, and this with an almost physical impact, if it moves the critic and the uncritical alike, it is primarily because of its power to stir the emotions, rather than the intelligence, at their highest level of sensitivity.

The pattern of the film's unfolding is not that of tragedy in the usual sense, but rather in the sense of the medieval Passion Play, or better still, of the Way of the Cross, each sequence being a station along that road...Bresson never condenses the text; he cuts it. Thus what is left over is a part of the original. Like marble from a quarry, the words of the film continue to be a part of the novel. Of course the deliberate emphasis on their literary character can be interpreted as a search after artistic stylization, which is the very opposite of realism.

It is unlikely that there exists anywhere in the whole of French cinema, perhaps even in all French literature, many moment of more intese beauty than in the medallion scene between the cure and the countess. Its beauty does not derive from the acting or from psychological and dramatic values of the dialogue, nor indeed does it derive from the scene's intrinsic meaning. The true dialogue that punctuates that struggle between the inspires priest and a soul in despair is, of its very nature, ineffable. The decisive clashes of their spiritual fencing match therefore escape us. Their words announce, or prepare the way for, the fiery torch of grace.

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