Keeping the Faith

Jean-Pierre Melville, Léon Morin, Priest, 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 117 minutes. Barny and Léon Morin (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo).

CALL IT MY NIGHTS AT MORIN’S: An attractive widow (Emmanuelle Riva) in a rural village visits a priest’s bare walk-up to mess with him and gets drawn into religious and philosophical debates shadowed by desire. Jean-Pierre Melville helped inspire the La Nouvelle Vague with Bob le Flambeur (1956), and in Léon Morin, Priest (1961)—the filmmaker’s return after the flop of Two Men in Manhattan (1959)—he directs Riva (Elle in Hiroshima Mon Amour [1959]) as the bored Barny opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo. Ten years after Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, the Breathless icon plays the improbable militant curate Léon Morin: young, sly, questioning, and boxer’s-mug handsome.

Instead of finding dogmatic certainty she can rattle, Barny encounters Morin’s jujitsu-like engagement with her doubts and criticism. Framing and reframing his two stars during their dialogues, Melville and DP Henri Decaë keep the audience on its toes; one scene in a confessional is shot in profile, the intimacy of the space recast as a disarming directness. Set during the wartime occupation—when the Army of Shadows director served in the Resistance—the film is filtered through Barny’s perspective on her changing surroundings, though these occupy only part of her charged internal monologue. Rolling tanks are heard through her shutters, not seen, and the war-related events that most hit home involve her precocious daughter, whom she secrets away with spinsters because of the girl’s Jewish father.

Morin’s ascetic rooms are a refuge from boredom and from the noise of the office where she works, but her visits with the priest are a battleground of a different sort. For Melville, ever alert to the treachery in the lived experience of absolutes, the spiritual and bodily temptation that Morin poses demands a torturous faith, but it is one, with cruel irony, that Barny cannot ultimately find satisfying.

Léon Morin, Priest is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.