Saturday, July 9, 2016

#582: Diary of a Country Priest

1951, TSPDT Rank #195

According to the description of the film which accompanies the Criterion release (now unfortunately out-of-print), Diary of a Country Priest was the film in which Robert Bresson's distinctive "stylistic philosophy" first came into view. I can't testify to this, since before seeing this film, the only other Bresson films that I had seen were Pickpocket and A Man Escaped (both made later in the 1950s). However, I can say that this is a film of rare beauty - harsh and uncompromising in its approach, but often approaching the sublime in its deceptively simple portrayal of a young Catholic priest's spiritual and physical dilemmas over the course of his assignment to a parish in an unwelcoming country village. And although there are no light or carefree moments to be found within this solemn two-hour film, I do not agree with its categorization as "boring" or "depressing". Bresson's precise and methodical hand constantly propels the film forward, allowing the viewer to empathize with the ailing priest's anguish through the use of frequent narration from the priest's diary, while creating the feeling that not a moment has been wasted. Visually, the film is thoroughly cinematic - featuring a consistently striking palette of sharp black-and-whites which complement Bresson's strong, angular compositions and stark rural settings. The film continues to gain momentum throughout, as the viewer gradually becomes closer to the priest, steadily building to a subdued yet haunting climax in which contact with a higher power can be clearly sensed. As Bresson enthusiasts often point out, the religious potential of the cinematic medium has rarely been pursued by filmmakers, and its presence in Diary of a Country Priest makes for a uniquely affecting and profound viewing experience. Bresson has been on my short list of directors to explore more thoroughly for quite some time now, but having seen this film, I definitely intend to see more of his work in the near future.