Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation (1951)

For me, the cinema is an exploration within. — Robert Bresson (1903-1999)

Robert Bresson is one of the most influential figures in French cinema. The acclaimed New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard once noted: “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”

I know, Austrians would say Mozart was Austrian. But this just shows his influence can cross borders. Same with Bresson, who is acclaimed as one of the forefathers of the French New Wave, even though his style is not experimental. The iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman had specifically cited Diary of a Country Priest as influence for his Winter Light.

Before Bresson adapted Diary of a Country Priest, two previous screenplays were attempted by others but turned down by the author Georges Bernanos himself. Bresson’s film was made after Bernanos died. Bernanos had nothing to worry about with Bresson’s interpretation, for the film is an almost literal and a worthy cinematic translation. It won the Prix Louis Delluc in France (best film of the year) and several international film awards. Bresson was given the Career Golden Lion at the 1989 Venice Film Festival.

That Bresson, a professed agnostic, would choose to adapt a work by the Catholic writer Bernanos shows the moving power and the universal appeal of the book. The parish of Ambricourt is a microcosm of the human world. The seemingly placid village hides a spiritually barren landscape and a cocoon of depravity. The young priest, an unwelcome alien, is captured cinematically as small and vulnerable, an apt depiction of how he feels within:

An outsider barred from a gated mansion of dark secrets, like here at the front gate of the Château.

The light comes into the world, but the darkness refuses it. On screen, we see the young priest often shut out of gates and windows. The glass pane allows him to be observed from the inside, yet he is very much on the outside isolated, the weight of the world heavy on his face.

Bresson’s style is minimal, you may find this film somewhat austere. But I’m gratified by such style, devoid of color and whatever additives we find in movies today. Instead, every frame conveys an aesthetic simplicity and thematic purpose.

To explore the drama within, Bresson chose ‘non-actors’. “As far as I can, I eliminate anything which may distract from interior drama,” Bresson was quoted saying, and distractions included ‘acting’. He selected his ‘models’ (as he called them, not ‘actors’) first for their voice. He particularly looked for inexperience. The young Curé of Ambricourt was Claude Laydu’s first film role. Others that Bresson used were often one-time actors just for the film he was making.

The Criterion Collection DVD has a most helpful commentary by film historian Peter Cowie. His insight is invaluable to the appreciation of Bresson’s adaptation. One of his remarks is the off-screen sounds we often hear in a scene. The most intense one would have to be the climatic spiritual battle between Mme la Comtesse and the young priest. Totally engulfed by grief, hatred and bitterness, and living in isolated misery all the years since her young son died, Mme la Comtesse finally releases her pain and receives blessings from the priest. And what sound do we hear off-screen the whole time they are engaged in this soul-piercing scene in the drawing room: the gardener’s raking of dead leaves.

Another source I’ve often sought out is the book written by Paul Schrader: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Yes, if I must choose a word to describe Bresson’s style, I would use Schrader’s term: transcendental. His minimal, aesthetically simple, ‘non-acting’ style raises the viewer to a meditative plane which is beyond the material, beyond all distractions. That’s the essence of cinema that I find so meaningful and gratifying.

And finally, despite succumbing to his illness, the young priest leaves a legacy that his superiors, the senior vicars, could not have: an embodiment of the suffering Christ and the redemptive power of grace. Despite his own frailty and ultimate death, the young country priest  triumphs through his faith, however feeble it may have seemed in his own eyes. It does not matter, for all is grace.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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AND TO ALL, A HAPPY EASTER!
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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

22 thoughts on “Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation (1951)”

    1. Diane,

      Hope you’ve had a wonderful Easter weekend. I highly recommend you watch the other Bresson films. I’ve only watched three of them, other than Country Priest, I really liked Pickpocket, which is Bresson’s version of Crime & Punishment. I’ve written a post on it in case you’re interested.

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  1. I like your opening quote. And the bite-size portion of the movie’s images I saw from the trailer viewed after reading your post.

    I am in the mood to watch a movie tonight. But since I don’t have this one, I think I’ll keep company with a different flavor of french country priest — the one living in the movie, Chocolat, that I have handy in my collection.

    It will finish Easter nicely.

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    1. Janell,

      Interesting that you mentioned Chocolat because I just have a reader commenting on the last post about the book, stating my review reminded her of Chocolat. Now I’ve seen the movie, but don’t quite remember the role of the priest. But Chocolat sounds like a more pleasant movie for Easter Sunday. 😉

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  2. From my fresh viewing of Chocolat last night, I can report that this priest has a small but pivotal role in the story. Arriving in town just five weeks before the start of Lent and the story, he, too, is a newbie in town — following the legacy of another priest who served five decades, the young priest is trying to find his way, perhaps even His way, in the face of petty pressures and trying to keep peace with the Comte and long-held villager traditions ripe for breaking. (With my day of breaking traditions, it became a perfect story to put Easter Day to bed.)

    Rather than the priest, the central character, Vianne Rocher, plays a sort of Christ figure — though the villagers see her as an ‘athiest,’ since she doesn’t believe in attending church. At the end of forty days, villagers are no longer their old selves, their connections with Vianne have enlarged their worlds. And the young priest delivers a Easter homily that becomes unforgettable — in the way of Christ himself — since his words met people where they were, while lifting them from the heavy yoke of traditional ways of living and believing.

    This may become a perennial Easter viewing for me. Hmmm. Maybe I should read the novel…

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    1. Come to think of it, I think I’ve Chocolat the book in one of the annual book sale boxes, loot I’ve hoarded in the past few years. So, I just might start it. But the two are definitely quite different in style and sombreness. For an Easter Sunday wrap, Chocolat sounds like a good treat.

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  3. I’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie, but your reviews make me want to do both. Thanks, Arti, for your insights. Hope you had a wonderful Easter!

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    1. ds,

      Actually, I think you’d enjoy other Bresson works too. And Bernanos’s book is an all time classic. Hope you’ll have the chance to enjoy them. Have a good week!

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  4. Lovely review – I have read the book! And another by Bernanos, Le Soleil de Satan which is much more melodramatic. He was part of a new wave of Catholicism that arose in reaction to the dominance of science at the end of the 19th century (all very interesting I found it to be when I was researching his work). I haven’t seen this film, but austerity would be very much in keeping with the book, which is bleak in the extreme at moments, but does manage to be touched with genuine grace by the end.

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    1. litlove,

      Thank you so much for the supplementary info. from your previous academic research. I’d love to read what you think of the two Bernanos books you’ve read. You know Le Soleil de Satan has a film adaptation too, starring Gérard Depardieu, so definitely not a Bresson work. 😉 But yes, I’d like to read more of Bernanos. I think you’ll really enjoy Bresson’s films too. I’ve a feeling Mr. Litlove would too. Other than Country Priest, I’m thinking of Pickpocket, Bresson’s version of Crime and Punishment.

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  5. Looking at the first image above, I was reminded of something quite different, which provides the same effect. A woman I know on Cape Cod had posted some images of a herd of deer moving through her woods. She asked us to try and find the deer – no one could. Finally, I realized the trees in the photo were much, much larger than I’d realized. Consequently, the deer were much smaller. Knowing the proper proportion, it was easy to pick out the entire herd.

    My grandmother used to tell me to “keep things in proportion”. Her advice makes a new kind of sense now, and it seems somehow related to the film and story. When we feel small and alone, even the most ordinary difficulty can be daunting. Accompanied by grace, even extraordinary difficulties can be overcome – though not perhaps in a way the world recognizes.

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    1. Linda,

      Keeping things in proportion to tread the realistic path; for a filmmaker, often it’s exaggerating the proportion to get a point across. Thank you for your insight into this piece… “Accompanied by grace, even extraordinary difficulties can be overcome – though not perhaps in a way the world recognizes.”

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  6. I looked at your post Great Film Expectations – some good films will be coming up. The book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been on my shelf for over a year – since I bought it at a library book sale for $1. Is it an interesting story?
    I know of Georges Bernanos but have not read his books. His themes were mostly to show good and evil as a spiritual battle (I prefer books more laïque.) I remember reading that Charles de Gaulle admired Bernanos so much that he wanted him to work in his government – Bernanos refused.

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    1. Vagabonde,

      There sure are some great expectations there… since that post, there are also a couple more announcements, including Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and another I forgot.

      I think Bernanos has brought out a third dimension, that instead of dichotomies, Grace envelops all and can bridge the irreconciliable.

      As for Guernsey, it’s a delightful read. If you’re interested, here’s my review post. How good a film it would be depends on how Branagh handles it… which may not be an easy task though.

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  7. Georgeous, Arti. I am not familiar with Bresson, as I am ignorant of most French cinema. I, too, enjoy a minimal approach, as you know, and so this really appeals to me. The visuals alone draw me in. To present him as small is brilliantly done. Wonderful introduction for me, thank you.

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    1. Ruth,

      I remember your post about the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. And I was wondering if the two were related in any way. Yes, I think you’ll enjoy Bresson’s films, not only Country Priest, but others as well. I highly recommend you look into them. Transcendental… I subscribe to Schrader’s term to describe his works.

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  8. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Religious Flicks Tuesday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

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