6 Aug 2010

Diary of a Country Priest

‘Diary of a Country Priest’ is the first Bresson film to employ the strict formal and aesthetic considerations which would come to dominate his film making for the remainder of his life. Consequently ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ represents an ideal starting point for a Bresson novice as it is here that we are able to see Bresson at his most expansive, it is here that we as an audience are most able to follow the subsequent process of his film making by witnessing it’s first manifestation. Bresson’s films are almost impossible to talk about without discussing this process because the link between the formal aesthetic of his films and their meaning is utterly insoluble.

There are very few directors whose aesthetic style, underpinned by sincere belief in the power of cinema, has the force to alter the manner in which you see the world.

It reminds you what cinema is capable of. After watching a Bresson film the world is framed differently, angles of sight seem directed to the small, to the half closed things constituting the environment. Objects and facial expressions begin to resonate in their stillness. Bresson gives us a cinema that reshapes our interiority through an insistence on an absenting surface. This insistence paradoxically erases the division between inner and outer by illustrating their knotted infinity sign. In the denial of the overt signs of inner life through his use of models (non professional actors trained into non-reacting by Bresson) he magnifies that inner life as it mounts up and breaks through the dam his cinematography erects.
Bresson’s films are religious in the least coarse expression of that term. One is tempted to describe them as ‘spiritual’ if that word had not become so degraded.

In ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ the aforementioned priest is assigned into a small village. His manner and lack of worldliness fail to endear him to the people there. He is not respected, his simplicity shames them and he is frequently abused. He is told to keep things in order during the day because they are sure to come apart during the night. A priest in a neighbouring parish questions his masculinity. The unfortunate priest becomes involved in a scandal when, having counselled a countess (in his sole moment of triumph) she dies the next morning. There is a parallel perhaps to Dostoyevsky’s ‘the idiot’ running throughout the film. The film though is less a sum of its events or movement than a psychological exploration of asceticism and doubt.

The faith of the priest ends in beautiful affirmation which, in this remarkable film, is also an affirmation of individual ‘faith’ or rather faith as the primary category of human experience. The film ends with a signature Bresson move into the transcendent but fittingly, unlike Joan of Arc or Pickpocket, this move is not dependent on an image but instead relayed in the most abstract, least physical, terms possible: through the last words of a dying man written down by their witness and sent into the ether.

Thomas Kendall

Director:  Robert Bresson

Starring: Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyre, Adrien Borel, Rachel Bérendt

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