(Diary of a Country Priest)
Director: Robert Bresson
Production: Union Générale Cinématographique; black and white, 35mm; running time: 120 minutes. Released 1950.
Producer: Léon Carré; screenplay: Robert Bresson, from the novel by Georges Bernanos; photography: Léonce-Henry Burel; editor: Paulette Robert; production designer: Pierre Charbonnier; music: Jean Jacques Grüenwald.
Cast: Claude Laydu ( Priest of Ambricourt ); Nicole Ladmiral ( Chantal ); Nicole Maurey ( Mademoiselle Louise ); Marie-Monique Arkell ( Countess ); Armand Guibert ( Priest of Torcy ); Jean Riveyre ( Count ); Jean Danet ( Olivier ); Antoine Balpêtré ( Doctor Delbende ); Martine Lemaire ( Séraphita ); Yvette Etiévant ( Young girl ).
Awards: Prix Louis-Delluc, France, 1950; Venice Film Festival, Best Photography and International Prize, 1951.
The Films of Robert Bresson , New York, 1969.
Armes, Roy, French Cinema Since 1946: The Great Tradition , New York, 1970.
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Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Style on Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer , Los Angeles, 1972.
De Pontes Leca, C., Robert Bresson o cinematografo e o sinal , Lisbon, 1978.
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Douchet, Jean, "Bresson on Location: Interview," in Sequence (London), no. 13, 1951.
Lambert, Gavin, "Notes on Robert Bresson," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1953.
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* * *
In the politics of adaptation, Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest must stand out as a revolutionary event. Taking over the project of this novel after its author, Georges Bernanos, had repudiated the version offered by Aurenche and Bost, Bresson promised to get beyond the cinema in order to embody, or act out, the spiritual drama that was at its core. Initially supported by producer Pierre Gerin, Bresson found himself abandoned after Bernanos's death in 1948. Nevertheless, he obtained the rights, finished his austere and unconventional script, and appealed to Bernanos's literary executor, Albert Beguin. Not only did Beguin accept Bresson's project, but this influential editor of the journal Esprit also helped him secure financing through the recently established national production agency, Union Générale Cinématographique.
Bresson chose for his hero a young Swiss actor from among a great many candidates, all of them practicing Catholics. For over a year Bresson and Claude Laydu met each Sunday to discuss the role. Laydu went so far as to live for a time in a monastery to accustom himself to priestly garb and gestures. Bresson insisted that he cease acting and become a "model," an instinctive presence to be sculpted by light and camera.
The French press covered the production and premiere of the film with pride. They helped guide it to a new audience, of intellectuals and of the pious, two groups that had never frequented the cinema. Cinephiles were encouraged to see the film twice. In this way Diary of a Country Priest opened up new options in the conception, realization, and exploitation of a film.
Using fidelity of adaptation as an issue, Bresson actually challenged the entire aesthetics of French cinema of quality. His film overturns received notions of "the primacy of the image" and of the "cinematic story," abandoning the theatrical, public and architectural ostentation of quality for a fluid, musical, interior, and ascetic expression. Bresson spoke of his work as an "ecriture" (Sartre) demanding new notions of the actor, the shot, and the soundtrack. Most critics could barely digest the film, for as Bazin said, it is a film not so much to read as to directly feel. While one can analyse the subject "christologically" according to the Stations of the Cross (the curé's falls, the wiping of his face by Seraphita, his glorious motorcycle ride to the big city where he will die, that death occurring between two outcasts in a high attic room), Bresson's is the opposite of an allegorical film. He cut 45 minutes without hesitation because the true drama was internal and was present in the quality of each of its moments. The spirituality every critic feels emanating from the film is really an effect produced by the accumulation of details rather than by dramatic plotting. A spiritual rhythm invades the images through the repetition of scenes, gestures, sounds, lighting and decor. Dialogue, monologue, landscape shots, scenes of writing, intensely composed music and natural sounds orchestrate a meditation rather than a story.
The diary form itself becomes the true site of meditation. It is variously represented as written pages on the screen, as a voice which situates the actions we see, and as those actions themselves, when through fades, ellipses and the like we realize that what is represented is reflection upon an event, not the event itself. In the penultimate sequence at the cafe, all three diary forms are present simultaneously: we see him writing, hear him say "I must have dozed off for a while," and sense that doze through a slight reframing after a dissolve. In this key moment we realize that he is recording the very episode we are watching, layering reflection on reflection as he sums up his life just before it ends.
But the diary is also treated as one physical object among others. Bresson capitalizes on the cinema's indifferent attachment to the objects of the world by filming lamps, winebottles, furniture, and prayerbooks in closeup. Bazin always claimed that style is a pattern of selection. If this is so, then Bresson gets to the interior via these objects as they interact with the hands, feet, and eyes of characters in a landscape of barren trees, narrow roads and the interiors of cold houses the doors and windows of which are at once invitations and warnings.
The gray and spongy atmosphere that lights this world is transcended by the priest in his diary. Certain scenes let us sense this transcendence in their lighting. The dialogue with Chantal in the confessional is the greatest such scene, for Bresson allows us to witness the luminosity of two faces and two hands in a dark space where only voice and intention matter. Light is the metaphor of the curé's discourse as he passes dark nights and is drawn to the warmth of lamps in windows and to the promise of dawn. At times light is not even a clarifying medium but a substance surrounded by darkness.
The curé's homelessness is seldom pictured in a single image, but exists as a rhythm of entrances and exits in which the world seems distant from him. The diary shapes a life in transit, at home only with itself and its meditation. Diary of a Country Priest is a landmark in subjective cinema. No establishing shots put the priest in context. Characters accelerate away from him. Bresson refuses to situate him dramatically, sociologically, or theologically. We are locked within his point of reflection. The soundtrack alone reminds him and us of the wider world. The natural sounds of feet on cobblestones, of a motorcycle, of people whispering, or of a breeze blowing constitute the true atmosphere of a search for grace. Together with the voice of the diary and the finality of the musical score (the last time Bresson would lean on a score), these natural sounds present the whole of the curé's world in each moment of the film: its pastness, its responsiveness, its fidelity, its limitation of vision, its productive loneliness and suffering.
The stakes of this film are high. Like the curé, Bresson is banking on the power of humility and discipline. Instead of achieving a life, Bresson would achieve a film. He would do so by thwarting the cinema. Many believers, especially the young Cahiers critics Truffaut and Godard, have had to defend their faith against those outraged by a film emanating in fragments from an obscure and obsessive mind. Diary of a Country Priest remains a watershed film in the history of adaptations and in the politics of style.