Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Claude Laydu
My Rating: ★★★★★, or 10/10
In Short: Bresson at his best; sad, cynical but ultimately beautiful
In Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Claude Laydu gives one of the screen’s most devastating performences without ever really performing. Laydu was not a professional actor, and indeed Bresson preferred it that way. Diary of a Country Priest marked the beginning of the true Bressonian era, when the director would stick to almost extreme minimalism, reflected largely in the fact that he told his stars not to act at all, but simply to say their lines dryly, without emotion. This is more evident in Bresson’s last films than his early ones, but in Diary of a Country Priest we catch a glimpse of Bresson at his most confident and best.
This is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. Perhaps the only sadder and more tragic film is Au Hasard Balthazar, which ironically enough is also directed by Bresson. His films tend to focus on helpless characters thrust into disturbing situations in a cruel world, and the outcome is rarely pleasant. Laydu’s performance as the titular priest is brilliant. Guided by Bresson, he gives a stunning performance that never asks anything of the viewer. Do we sympathise with him? No. Do we pity him? Probably not. Do we feel his pain? Not directly. But what we do feel is deep sadness for him, an acknowledgement that the beauty in the world can sometimes be found from grisly, ugly situations.
Laydu plays a young priest, assigned to a parish in the small town of Ambricourt. Immediately, he is treated with contempt and persecuted by perhaps the whole village. He has a terrible stomach problem, and can only eat bread which he softens with wine. Not realizing the seriousness of his illness, the villagers assume he is an alcoholic. The young schoolchildren tease him; he receives a note telling him to “get out,” and when he tries to help a woman who is haunted by the death of her young son, her own sudden death is attributed to him. He never does anything wrong, almost always looks solemn and pained, and like Marie Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, he is a saint and a martyr. He suffers and suffers, and no-one seems to care. This theme of suffering and almost claustrophobic trapping is reflected throughout Bresson’s career, and all his characters seem to accept it as life, and never seem to fight it. Perhaps they have realized the sad, cynical truth of life: the battle is already lost.
The film is not as dark and hopeless as I may have made it sound. There are moments of lightness, hope and beauty, such as the image of the cross that closes the film, and a moment of unexpected pleasantness and happiness, when the Priest is given a motorcycle ride by the friendly Oliver. These moments are rare and sometimes too quick to notice, but they are the glue of the film. In even the most cynical and bitter of Bresson’s films, there are always moments of purity, light and hope. Without these moments, the film would be nothing but a series of increasingly depressing developments that leave us lonely and afraid. Bresson may be a cynic, but that doesn’t mean he wants to make people unhappy.
The final moments of a Bresson film are always important, as they not only sum up the whole plot of the film and reveal the outcome, but they are the moments we return to when we immediately start to ponder the film. Sometimes the images are disturbing and bleak (Mouchette, Lancelot du Lac) but sometimes there is a momentary escape, a brief glimpse of freedom and a jump into the light. Diary of a Country Priest has perhaps the happiest ending of them all. Despite the fact that the dying priest has succumbed to his ailment, and the pages of his diary are all we have left of him, there are his final words “All is grace,” which allow us the reassurance that wherever the Priest has gone or arrived, that it is a beautiful land of freedom and peace, a silent place where all is grace.
Previous films in the Bresson-athon:
Les anges du pèchè (1943)
A Man Escaped (1956)