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