Man with a Mission

Tony Pipolo on Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest

Robert Bresson, Diary of a Country Priest, 1951, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 115 minutes.

FOR THOSE who know Robert Bresson only as the director of A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), and later films, the newly subtitled 35-mm print of Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is must viewing. Consistent with Bresson’s tendency to confront a spiritual perspective with an indifferent world, Diary is based on the 1937 novel by Georges Bernanos and is among the few film adaptations of a work of literature to equal its source. Structured in the form of a diary kept by an earnest young priest whose labors to stir the souls of his first parish in a provincial village are met with coldness and hostility, the narrative is both a microcosm of the human condition and a via dolorosa that leads, inevitably, to the protagonist’s death. Bresson does not soften the meanness of Bernanos’s characters or excuse the primal flaws that transcend class. All—farmers as well as local aristocracy, children as well as adults—play out the spectrum of the seven deadly sins. Neither comforting fable nor lofty celebration of pastoral devotion, Diary is the darkest, most psychologically penetrating movie ever made about a priest and his vocation.

One of the few indisputable masterpieces of post–World War II French cinema, the film excels in all the characteristics of the classical tradition that the later Bresson would curtail, if not renounce: memorable performances, dramatic scenes, a powerful musical score, and atmospheric cinematography. On the other hand, the integration of diary entries, their filmic enactments, and the voiceovers of the protagonist is something Bresson would continue to refine to leaner proportions in other films. And, as the tight and elliptical editing that marks his later work confirms, never again would he indulge in extended long takes, deployed with such aplomb in Diary to profoundly emotional effect. No filmmaker I can think of went on to take such pains to dismantle the very grounds of such an achievement in pursuit of a more disciplined, purer form of film art.

The more expansive style of Diary seems tied to Bresson’s discovery of Claude Laydu, a Belgian actor whose prior stage experience was eclipsed by the astonishing impact he made in this, his first film. Laydu’s face, voice, and demeanor radiate an inner conviction and divine possession matched in film history only by Maria Falconetti’s incarnation of Joan in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). So devoted to the project was Laydu that he spent months living among priests to absorb their lifestyle and carried the Bernanos novel around with him at all times. In him, Bresson found not only the embodiment of his saintly, tormented priest but the model of protagonists in his subsequent work: a figure of angelic, impassioned youth tested by but ultimately triumphant over worldly corruption. The significance of this discovery is evidenced by many long-held shots of Laydu’s face, which the slowly approaching camera searches for signs of its divine fire. In other long takes, the respectful distance and patient gaze of the camera imbue the space between the priest and other characters with an intimacy and rapport befitting the former’s ministerial efforts to retrieve souls from loneliness and despair.

A new print of a classic is always welcome, especially when extraordinary care has been taken with English subtitles. Though in every film from A Man Escaped (1956) to L’Argent (1987), Bresson would become more exacting about the relationships between image and word, image and sound, and onscreen and off-screen space, the importance of these hallmarks is already apparent in Diary of a Country Priest. It is a pleasure, therefore, to report that the new print of Diary not only offers clearer translations in many instances but is also sensitive to the placement of subtitles, bringing them into view, for the most part, not a second sooner or later than the French dialogue or voiceover. Instead of struggling with a subtitle while the image or moment that induced it has passed, we grasp both simultaneously. Such care respects, even parallels, Bresson’s attention to formal relationships. Given the density of the verbal text in Diary of a Country Priest, this could not have been easy. Thanks are due, therefore, to translator and subtitler Lenny Borger and to his editors at Rialto Pictures, Bruce Goldstein and Adrienne Halpern.

A restored 35-mm print of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest runs at Film Forum in New York February 25–March 10. For more details, click here.