Friday, 27 April 2012

1,001 Films: "Diary of a Country Priest" (1951)

In an ideal world, Dougal and Ted from Father Ted would have gone to see Diary of a Country Priest at some point, only to find themselves stumbling out halfway through, incredibly confused, disappointed and bored. It dates from the early part of Robert Bresson's directorial career, when the soon-to-be-revered filmmaker was still obliged to prove himself tackling racy literary adaptations (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne from Diderot, this from Georges Bernanos), but you sense him attempting to pare away any fripperies or potential scandal all the same, to reduce the source material to close-ups, faces, the very essence of what it was to be this country priest at this moment in time. This, as we shall see, turns out to be a double-edged sword.

What perhaps attracted Bresson to this material is that the protagonist is himself a minimalist, wasting away on a diet of dry bread dipped in wine out of a refusal to do (or, presumably, eat) anything that might compromise his core philosophy. The priest's existence is similarly reduced to nuggety anecdotes in which he settles into his new community, deals with the various concerns of his parishioners, wrestles with his faith, and then goes on to struggle, gravely, with his health. In the film's starkest images, we see him writing up the day's encounters and conclusions in his own good book; in the beginning (and the end) there is the Word.

All this writing can, however, only generate more writing. You see why Godard, himself no stranger to flooding the screen with inky splurges, would have been drawn to the film; you can also imagine scores of Schraderites writing very academic essays tying the priest together with the notionally less moral hero of the later Pickpocket. Yet Diary may just be one of those films more intriguing to write about than to have to sit through; for non-believers or doubters, it'll prove a Sunday school-like chore, in part because the dilemmas the priest faces up to are of another century, in part because actor Claude Laydu - a very Bressonian lead, unadorned, without airs or graces - remains such a miseryguts one wonders why his priest pursued this path in the first place. I don't doubt the film holds a particular place in the cinema of spirituality, but it's the subsequent A Man Escaped - a scenario that holds up whether or not you believe in a higher power - which remains Bresson's true breakthrough film.

Diary of a Country Priest is available on DVD through Optimum Home Releasing


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