I tell my film students to give themselves over to whatever film they’re watching; let the film draw you into its world and take you for whatever ride it wants. Perhaps no film is more challenging for a modern audience to do that with, yet would be so rewarded for, as Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951, released in the U.S. in 1954). Austere, pure, esthetic, quiet, powerful, and exploring places of the mind and soul that most of us back away from. If you don’t engage in it, it’s slow and boring. If you do, it could be transcendent.
As with many foreign films, specifically French films, it is more of a character study than a riveting story. Or should I say that it begins as a character study and then moves into another realm entirely. If film could ever be said to express the soul, then this film does, along with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which this film strongly resembles.
I cannot write a normal analysis of the film. For one, it must be experienced. No description of the plot or even the film’s justly praised cinematography would give the viewer a proper preparation. This is a spiritual journey that goes deeper than most people choose to go when viewing a film, especially if escape or entertainment is the goal. The first challenge is that Bresson presents us with a world of life in the French countryside that most of us cannot relate to. Though set squarely in the 20th century, the milieu geographically and spiritually seems almost medieval at times. If not for the presence of modern vehicles, it would be difficult to place this film chronologically.
The second reason for my lack of objectivity is the struggle of the priest, both inside and out. This writer is a full-time pastor, and I have experienced, and am currently experiencing, several of the same struggles of the priest. No, I’m not doubting my faith, and I don’t share his physical struggles. But the doubting as to one’s effectiveness is an occasional struggle for one in my position. Also, the priest as Rorschach test for his community led to laughs and shivers of recognition. Everyone in the community looks at him differently, judging him on the basis of what they observe, or think they do, and what they might have heard, or misheard. No one “gets” him, and as he moves forward step by faithful step, he ends up stirring the pot of the community’s various issues—from an adulterous Count to a couple of troubled young girls. In spite of his own doubts, he is the only one who even comes close to understanding who he is and why he does what he does.
Happily (spoiler alert), he has an intense and deeply spiritual conversation with someone that goes deep into the heart and soul, and changes a life. It’s the kind of experience any pastor lives for in terms of shepherding his flock, and it was a joy to share the experience with him. Almost immediately after that, another shared experience occurred as he was misquoted on that same successful conversation, wrongly accused in terms of intention, and castigated for stepping over his boundaries. I am not Catholic and don’t share the martyrdom context that the leads gives himself in this film, so I could only watch at something of a distance as he suffered and absorbed the blows. The “passion” of Jesus becomes the model for the priest’s spiritual journey, and while I share an understanding of the dying of the Lord inside His followers, my own life is balanced by an understanding of the effects of His resurrection.
But believer or not (director Bresson was agnostic), this is a film worth giving oneself over to. If you’re impatient and/or only like action movies, wait a couple of decades. But see it eventually. Give yourself to it. Let its pace take you over, and don’t worry that its acting doesn’t feel modern or Method. [The lead actor, or more accurately, non-actor Claude Laydu, set the way for Hanks, Bale and McConaughey by fasting through the filmmaking, and it shows.]
Those who most enjoyed this year’s Gravity were those that allowed themselves to be drawn into its world, and they reaped its rewards. If you have the inclination and the time, let Diary of a Country Priest take you on its journey of the soul. I usually recommend seeing films in a groups, and approximating the experience at a theater. But as most would only be able to see this at home, I recommend seeing it alone. It will take you to new places, and its ending is sublime.