Saturday, September 28, 2019

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1950)

In a lesser film, the emphasis on writing in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest might seem over-emphatic, almost as a negation of cinema: for a significant portion of screen time we see the words on the pages of the priest’s journal and simultaneously hear them in his voice over. In Bresson’s hands however, the repetition deepens our compassion for the meticulous thoroughness of the protagonist’s struggle, while surely suggesting a linkage between the man of God and the artist: each consecrated to his interpretative process, to relentless self-examination, to a journey of uncertain destination. The film’s ultimate tragedy is embodied by the priest’s incapacity to craft the final entry, by the intrusion (however respectful) of the voice of another, by the yielding of all imagery to that of the cross. The film depicts the priest’s life as small and strained, doomed almost from the start (there are hints of what we might now call fetal alcohol syndrome), but with the capacity to acquire a kind of majesty (or grace, in the film’s terms) if it were allowed to approach God expansively and openly, to rely as much on intuition as on dogma and ritual. But the rural society to which he’s assigned is parched and grudging and set in its ways, tolerant of the church as long as it maintains its boundaries as an abstract pillar of continuity and order and discipline, unable to countenance true questing or suffering. The film feels so unerringly composed that later Bresson works may almost seem strained by comparison (this is a purely relative assessment, I should emphasize). It also encompasses one of the purest expressions of bliss in his work – a brief ride on the back of a motorcycle ride that leaves the priest momentarily exhilarated, certain he feels God’s hand in the experience (it’s a moment of surrender that may bring to mind the older Bresson’s delight in For Your Eyes Only, for its “cinematic writing”). Diary of a Country Priest is at once resolutely tangible and specific and wondrously transcendent, an inexhaustible filmic pilgrimage.

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