Diary of a Country Priest | Film review
For all its importance in the canon, this 1951 classic may be Robert Bresson’s most deceptively difficult work.
For all its importance in the canon, Diary of a Country Priest may be Bresson’s most deceptively difficult film, especially for those of us who’ve never managed to love the director’s works intuitively. Themes of sin and absolution, of course, pervade even his greatest movies: A Man Escaped portrays a prison break as a test of devotion and loyalty; the Crime and Punishment gloss Pickpocket prods us to covet and then repent; L’Argent traces the corruptive spread of a counterfeit franc note. Still, Diary isn’t just about faith but godlessness—the indifference of the world to kindness, a perspective with which even the martyring title character begins to sympathize.
He is a young priest (Laydu) new to a country parish. During his brief tenure, he’ll know little success. Partly through willed asceticism, partly because he is secretly dying of stomach cancer, he subsists on bread and wine, leading the townsfolk to regard him as a drunkard. The girls in Sunday school taunt him. One of the few kind residents, a doctor, dies of an apparent suicide. And his lone rehabilitative victory—consoling a grieving countess (Bérendt)—is quickly canceled when she, too, dies; the local rumor mill spreads false word that his counsel pushed her over the edge.
Despite the diary of the title, Bresson’s film places itself as much outside of Laydu’s character as within: The director’s precise use of sound emphasizes how the unnamed priest stands apart from the bustle of the village. Even we doubt his methods. The main character is contrasted with an older mentor (Borel, in real life a psychiatrist) who advises pulling back from his parishioners’ lives. In a sense, Diary is less a movie about the necessity of faith than what it means to be cut down in the midst of youthful idealism and intransigence, before life offers wisdom.