Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne)

Diary of a Country Priest
(Journal d'un curé de campagne)
Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (based on the novel by George Bernanos)
Stars: Claude Laydu (Priest of Ambricourt), Marie-Monique Arkell (Countess), Léon Arvel (Fabregard), Antoine Balpêtré (Dr. Delbende), Jean Danet (Olivier), Jeanne Étiévant (Housekeeper), André Guibert (Priest of Torcy), Bernard Hubrenne (Priest Dufrety), Nicole Ladmiral (Chantal), Martine Lemaire (Séraphita), Nicole Maurey (Mrs. Louise), Martial Morange (Deputy mayor), Jean Riveyre (Count)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1951
Country: France
Diary of a Country Priest

Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne) is a film about anguish, both physical and spiritual. Like so many of Bresson’s films, it features a central protagonist who is adrift in a difficult and painful world, searching for grace and finding only cynicism, mistrust, and rejection. The harsh realities unearthed in the film are obvious, but Bresson conveys them with the kind of poetic minimalism that elevates the mundane into true art; he is an extraordinary alchemist, and his achievement here is one of great emotional weight that stays with you long after the film is over.

Based on the celebrated 1936 novel by Roman Catholic writer George Bernanos (who died two years before the film was made), Diary of a Country Priest tells the simple story of a young priest and his involvement in a rural community. The priest is played by newcomer Claude Laydu, whose boyish face and sad, intriguing eyes convey his character’s deep spiritual recesses and poignant idealism. He is assigned to a tiny parish in Ambricourt, a country village in the desolate north of postwar France. Instead of feeling welcome, the priest is immediately placed on the outside of the village’s social sphere, and most of his attempts to work his way inside are met with resistance, if not outright hostility. Bresson quickly conveys the priest’s outsider status in the film’s opening segment, when he happens across a wealthy Count (Jean Riveyre) locked in an adulterous kiss with his mistress. The look of disdain the passes across the Count’s face and the priest’s immediate withdrawal become emblematic of the relationship between this man of God and his parishioners.

The Count’s family becomes a crucial testing ground for the young priest, as he is drawn into their tortured inner world. In particular, the priest attempts to reach out to the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell), who is haunted by the death of her young son and has long since resigned herself to her husband’s selfish, adulterous ways. The priest is successful in bringing her some sense of peace—in fact, she is his one success—but that is tinged by the fact that the Countess’ young daughter, Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), misinterprets the priest’s actions and hates him as a result.

The priest also has trouble with another child, Séraphita (Martine Lemaire ), who, for reasons that are never entirely clear, despises the priest and makes it a point to get him in trouble. Although Séraphita is just a child, she is presented as someone capable of deep derision and insidiousness—she stands as a symbolic rejection of Christ’s declaration that the kingdom of God belongs to children.

Most of the film’s meaning is conveyed in the priest’s dutiful journal entries, the pages of which Bresson often uses as a transition device between scenes. The priest’s voice-over narration provides a map of his mounting anguish, as he tries in vain to reach out to those who do not want him. Even his superior, the Priest of Torcy (André Guibert), tells him that he has no common sense, knows nothing of other people, and “cuts an odd figure” in his own parish. The young priest is also increasingly crippled by a painful stomach ailment that has reduced his diet to little more than bread and wine. Thus, his spiritual condition is deeply intertwined with his physical condition; in a sense, they are one in the same. As his stomach deteriorates, so do his idealism and faith. Even though the priest is clearly presented as a Christ figure, he is one who is infinitely more human and prone to doubt.

Yet, even though Diary of a Country Priest is about anguish, it is not ultimately about failure, even though the priest can be seen as one. After all, he struggles mightily to do his work, yet Ambricourt is virtually unchanged by the end of the film, the people still going about their petty lives with little if any spiritual transformation. However, the film, after all, is not about them—it is about the priest and his spiritual journey. The fact that he is largely unsuccessful in his work does not make him a failure as a man or as a follower of God, and the fact that the last words on his lips are “All is grace” are testament to the endurance of his spiritual commitment. While it is possible to see this line as ironic, it is also possible to see it as the priest’s reward for his labors. Despite everything he has suffered, he realizes that the spiritual is always greater than the physical. Even as his health deteriorates to the point of death, his soul—that intangible, mysterious essence that Bresson so desperately wanted to capture through his art—survives.

Diary of a Country Priest Special Edition Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Dolby 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie
Original theatrical trailer
Essay by Frédéric Bonnaud
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateFebruary 3, 2004

Criterion has delivered again with another excellent transfer of a classic film. The high-definition transfer of Diary of a Country Priest was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and then digitally cleaned up with the MTI Digital Restoration System. Léonce-Henri Burel’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography looks radiant; the transfer keeps the slightly soft-focus look of some of the compositions without distorting into graininess or pixilation. Blacks are solid throughout, and detail level is consistently high. There are a few bits of dirt and slight hairlines that couldn’t be removed digitally without marring the image, but they are virtually unnoticeable.

The original monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack and digitally restored. One of Bresson’s stylistic traits is his emphasis on particular off-screen sounds to establish tone, mood, and location, and the soundtrack, despite the limitations of its age, gives a good sense of environment. The sound is clean and almost entirely hiss-free.

Assiduous film scholar Peter Cowie, one of Criterion’s most reliable contributors (he has recorded commentaries for several other Criterion DVDs, including Tokyo Olympiad and Wild Strawberries), offers his thoughts on the film in a screen-specific audio commentary. Cowie, always poised and dignified in his commentaries, gives a good deal of information about the film’s production and how it relates to Bresson’s career and French cinema in general. He also spends a good deal of time discussing the source novel, often illuminating scenes in the film by reading passages from Bernanos’ work.

The only other supplement included is a restored theatrical trailer and an essay by Frédéric Bonnaud reprinted from Film Comment.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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