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Powerful Film That Requires Close Attention
on 13 March 2014
DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, (1951). This black and white, classic 115 minute French film was adapted by acclaimed French director Robert Bresson, (LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE),from a well-known French novel by Georges Bernanos. It concerns the priest of the small French village of Ambricourt, in the vicinity of Lille .It appears to take place at an earlier time, perhaps in the 1930s, before the outbreak of World War II. The title priest, played by non-actor Claude Laydu, is a reserved and dedicated young man, new to the job, whose inability to mesh in social situations causes him to feel isolated from the very population he's supposed to be serving. His health problems add to his troubles, making him unable to carry out some of his obligations. As he grows sicker and ever more confused as to what his life really means, the priest feels himself further distanced from his village and from God. This cerebral film, Bresson’s fourth, done in the minimalist style that Bresson was to make his own, largely with amateur actors, is often considered Bresson’s first masterpiece: he both wrote the screenplay and directed. The DVD also features commentary by film historian Peter Cowie.
This film is powerful, but very, very slow. It requires close attention to detail in order to understand it. And it strongly reminds me of the Austrian Michael Haneke ‘s WHITE RIBBON, made more than 60 years later. Or, more logically, WHITE RIBBON is a reminder of this earlier French film. Both tell the story of sensitive souls crushed by the hostile, malicious inhabitants of a small isolated village. However, in Haneke’s film, we are given no explanation for the malice of the village, and particularly its children; just the thought that growing up in a village like that was enough to create Nazis. Or perhaps it was just growing up speaking German. At any rate, in DIARY, we are given an explanation; I expect from the novel upon which it is based. Several characters remark that locals in that vicinity are all hobbled by having been born descended from generations of drunks; and that, furthermore, they were also probably malnourished as children. Mind you, we had particular difficulty in this house in benefiting from this film, as, unfortunately, we were not able to turn off the intrusive commentary by Cowie. Ultimately, the only thing we could think to do was to set the TV controls to mute, thereby missing out on the atmosphere of the spoken French, and just reading the English subtitles.
Both Bresson, and Bernanos were devoted Catholics. In fact, the movie’s most famous line, "All is grace,” according to the Internet Movie Database, is a quotation from Therese de Lisieux, a saint to whom novelist Georges Bernanos was deeply devoted. Regretfully, I doubt this film would appeal to a wide, general audience, or to anyone lacking a particular interest in it: an interest in French history, or Bresson, or French film, or religious and spiritual dramas, or faith and spirituality. If you have any doubts, I’d recommend just streaming it prior to any purchase.