Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson / France, 1951):
(Journal d'un curé de campagne)

Faith's death drive, its leaps and hemorrhages, "o doux miracle de nos mains vides." The young priest (Claude Laydu) is a nestling in a dogpatch, fine-boned like a Perugino portrait or Freddie Bartholomew not quite out of britches. ("Seminaries these days send us choirboys," grumbles one veteran abbé.) The Ambricourt countryside, a barren stretch with a lavish manor full of drama obliquely registered in the cleric notebook, just a fountain pen on white paper like a blank movie screen. Spilled ink for the adulterous Count (Jean Riveyre) and his bereft wife (Rachel Bérendt), their teenage daughter (Nicole Ladmiral) is a coolly vehement face floating in the darkness of the confessional booth, "une diablesse." Stale bread and sugared wine and mockery left and right, the pit of the stomach absorbs all. "This cruel ordeal may have upset my reason and my nerves. But my belief remains." Bernanos’ Catholic yoke via Robert Bresson’s agnostic compassion, an incomparable flow of encounters and challenges. Ruthless compression gives a world stripped to inhospitable essentials, the camera frames it then dollies in before fading to black; the slow lowering of eyes or the turn of a head are enough for an epiphany, the soundscape is a remarkable trove of off-screen groans and murmurs. The cornerstone is a ten-minute tug-of-war for the soul of la Comtesse, a bravura piece of suffocation punctuated unforgettably by leaves being raked outside the window. The unsigned letter in church (Clouzot’s Le Corbeau) and the vicar at the crossroads (Powell’s The Spy in Black), a site of marvels. (The holy face during a fit of delirium is a smirking schoolgirl's, a motorcycle materializes to grant the protagonist a rare, windswept smile.) Priesthood like the Foreign Legion or "a hornet in a bottle," a steady drift toward an enveloping crucifix (cp. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath) and "la paix des morts." From parish to prison (A Man Escaped) is but a hop for Bresson, many films (I Confess, Nazarin, Winter Light, Blaise Pascal) keep the torch burning. Cinematography by Léonce-Henri Burel. With Adrien Borel, Nicole Maurey, Martine Lemaire, and Antoine Balpetré. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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