Sunday, April 29, 2012

Diary of a Country Priest

Based on the novel by George Bernanos, Journal d’un cure` de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) is the story of a young priest who arrives to a small French town as he deals with rejection from the local congregation. Written for the screen and directed by Robert Bresson, the film explores a young man’s faith being tested by this rejection as he tries to become part of this town. Starring Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyre, and Adrien Borel. Journal d’un cure` de campagne is a haunting yet heart-wrenching film from Robert Bresson.

A young un-named priest (Claude Laydu) arrives at the small town of Ambricourt to begin his first parish as its local priest. Hoping to do what he feels is his duty to God, the priest would encounter all sorts of trouble from his local congregation as they treat with him indifference. Turning to an older priest (Adrien Borel) from a nearby town for advice, the older priest tells him to take his time while noticing how ill this young man is looking. While he also tries to teach youngsters with a sense of disdain towards him, he notices a young woman named Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), who is the daughter of the count (Jean Riveyre) and countess (Rachel Berendt), that has been coming to the church seeking answers. Struggling with his health and having doubts about his role following the death of a local doctor (Antoine Balpetre), the young priest would receives unsigned letters to leave town.

After meeting with Chantal who reveals her hatred towards her parents, the young priest talks to the countess over his concerns for Chantal leading to revelations from the countess about the loss of her late son. The young priest’s meeting with the countess would have a major impact on him as he’s treated with a more hostile reaction from locals including the count. The older priest tries to get answers from him as he’s concerned for the young man’s health that includes a diet of wine, bread, and fruit. Wanting to try and make an impact as the local priest, the young man still deals with his ailing health as well as Chantal’s troubled behavior. Finally having to leave town for health reasons, he faces more circumstances that would test his faith even more as he writes everything he’s dealing with in his journal.

What happens when a young priest is assigned to his first parish in a small town only to be met with a reaction that is unexpected while having his faith tested in the process? That’s pretty much a summary of what the film is about as writer/director Robert Bresson explores this young man trying to do his duty for God. While he arrives as a young man getting ready to his first parish as a priest, he becomes unprepared for what he’s facing while he also arrives looking physically ill. The screenplay serves as a way to test this young man’s faith by escalating the troubling circumstances and challenges he faces. Notably in the people he meets such as an experienced priest from another small town, a rich family with a very troubled daughter, and a mischievous student (Martine Lemaire).

While the story is quite drawn out to emphasize the long struggle and suffering this young priest is facing. It does play out a bit long at times making the pacing be sluggish in a few places. Yet, there are amazing scenes where Bresson has the young priest those who question his duty in some long but very intense scenes. The way Bresson writes the dialogue from these characters and their actions would have huge repercussions for the film’s protagonist as a lot of it is told from his perspective. Since the film would have scenes of the young priest telling his story on a journal with a reflective narration. It would reveal more layers of his confusion and growing sense of doubt that adds to the many strengths of the film.

Bresson’s direction is entrancing for the way he creates a presentation that is simple and to the point. From the way he opens the film where this young priest sees a young couple making out and the sign of the town that he arrives in. It’s a way to establish the new world that he’s about to embark in as he walks into town with a beret and his priest robe. It’s a very understated opening that would progress into a more simplified yet dramatic film that is filled with mesmerizing scenes such as the doctor’s funeral service where the young priest talks to the old priest about the way the doctor died that confuses him.

Told through the calm but distressing voice-over narration, Bresson would always have a camera on something the young priest is saying such as Chantal’s introduction and the intense revelation from Chantal’s mother over the idea of death. Bresson never lets a moment be wasted as it includes some startling moments in the third act where the young priest would feel the urge to rebel in the narration. Yet, Bresson always find a way for this young man to have some sort of moment about his faith that will leave a huge impression towards the end. Overall, Bresson creates a very powerful film about faith that pushes the idea of doubt in the mind of a young priest.

Cinematographer Leonce-Henri Burel does wonderful work with the film‘s black-and-white cinematography to set the mood for many of the film‘s interior scenes including the ones at night for its interior and exterior settings to emphasize the young priest‘s struggle. Editor Paulette Robert does excellent work with the editing by utilizing rhythmic cuts for the intensity of the drama along with stylized dissolves and fade-outs for the film‘s transitions. Art director Pierre Charbonnier and set decorator Robert Tulure do nice work with the set pieces such as the church that the young priest works at to the messy home that he stays in the for the film’s third act.

The sound work of Jean Rieul is terrific for the way it‘s naturally captured from the footsteps to the clanging of objects that is heard to maintain a sense of intimacy. The film’s score by Jean-Jacques Grunenwald is delightful for its serene yet dramatic orchestral score to play up the young priest’s struggle.

The film’s ensemble cast is brilliant as it includes notable small appearances from Bernard Hubrenne as a former priest in the third act, Jean Danet as a kind man in a motorcycle whom the young priest likes, Martine Lemaire as the young church student who tries to push the young priest with her antics, and Antoine Balpetre as the doctor that examines the priest early in the film until his sudden death. Jean Riveyre is excellent as the count who tries to warn the priest to leave the town only to become indifferent towards him while Rachel Berendt is great as the countess who has this amazing scene where she deals with her own crisis of faith.

Nicole Ladmiral is superb as the very troubled Chantal who reveals her own suffocation in living with her parents as she reveals her hatred while trying to avoid questions about her own true temptations. Adrien Borel is wonderful as the older priest from another town who tries to bring guidance to the young priest while realizing that some things aren’t exactly as it seems. Finally, there’s Claude Laydu in an incredible performance as the young priest who tries to deal with his sudden sense of doubt as well as the lukewarm reaction to his arrival in a small town. It’s a very entrancing performance that requires a lot of physical body language as well as understated moments to display the anguish he’s dealing with as it’s a performance that has to be seen.

Journal d’un cure` de campagne is a truly captivating and mesmerizing film from Robert Bresson that features an intensely chilling performance from Claude Laydu. The film is truly one of the best and most provocative features to discuss the themes of faith and doubt without having some kind of overbearing message. Notably as Bresson tries to find the humanity in a man that is trying to play the role as a servant of God in a world that is often very cruel. In the end, Journal d’un cure` de campagne is a masterfully-crafted and engrossing film from Robert Bresson.

Robert Bresson Films: (Les affairs publique) - (Les Anges du peche) - Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne - A Man Escaped - Pickpocket - The Trial of Joan of Arc - Au Hasard Balthazar - Mouchette - (A Gentle Woman) - (Four Nights of a Dreamer) - (Lancelot du Lac) - (The Devil Probably) - L’Argent

© thevoid99 2012


James said...

I agree that this is one of the best films about faith and doubt. And like you pointed out, I like how it isn't overbearing. Bresson's simple style allows the themes and characters to shine through without the film ever dominating you.

It thematically reminds me a lot of Winter Light, but I like this film a lot more. Bresson's films just have a much more organic and natural flow to me.

thevoid99 said...

The simplicity of that character's struggle is what drives the film.

I want my religious films to not have some message. I want them to actually tell a story and make me care about these characters.

That is something a lot of these Christian-based film productions seem to miss the point on. They'll look at this film and proclaim it as blasphemous when they really just don't get it.