Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951)
Of all the celebrated masterworks of film, Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest may be the most uncompromising in making the case for cinema as an artistic medium on the same level as literature and music. In comparison, what is Citizen Kane but a rather blobby melodrama about the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon? Even the best of Hitchcock's oeuvre -- in which I would include Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), and North by Northwest (1959), while others would cite Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) -- is little more than crafty embroidery on the thriller genre. The highest-praised directors, from Ford, Hawks, and Kurosawa to Godard, Kubrick, and Scorsese, never seem to stray far from the themes and tropes of popular culture. Even a film like Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) falls back on sentiment as a way of engaging its audience. But Bresson strives for such a purity of character and narrative, down to the refusal to use well-known professional actors, and such a relentless intellectualizing, that you can't help comparing his film favorably to the great works of Flaubert or Dostoevsky. Having said that, I must admit that it's a work much easier to admire than to love, especially if, like me, you have no deep emotional or intellectual connection to religion -- or even an outright hostility to it. Does the suffering of the sickly young priest beautifully played by Claude Laydu really result in the kind of transcendence the film posits? Are the questions of grace and redemption real, or merely the product of an ideology out of tune with actual human experience? What explains the hostility he encounters in the village he tries to serve: the work of the devil or the bleakness of provincial existence? On the other hand, just asking those questions serves to point out how richly condensed is Bresson's drama of ideas. I love the movies I've cited above as somehow lacking in the intellectual seriousness of Bresson's film, but there's room in the pantheon for both kinds of film.