Robert Bresson does nothing in a superficial way to please his audiences. The rewards of his films unfold slowly from their stories, and pierce deeply. He is very serious about human nature and the indifference of the world. He is not a Catholic but an agnostic who values any consolation his characters can find, in or out of faith.
His visual strategy doesn’t break scenes down into easy storytelling elements but regards them as unyielding facts. In this film he opens and closes many passages with old-fashioned iris shots, reproducing the act of opening our eyes to the world, seeing its reality, and closing them again. There is a lot of background music, some of it vaguely spiritual, some of it saccharine, all of it more ironic than consoling. The look seems dark and depressing at first, but his films live not in the moment but in their complete length, and for the last hour I was more spellbound than during a thriller. Bresson does nothing to make me “like” the priest, but my empathy was urgently involved.
Bresson (1901-1999) was one of the great figures in the French cinema. In 50 years he made only 13 features. I saw the final one, “L’Argent,” at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, and recall that the press screening was unlike those of most directors; you would have thought the critics were in church. It is ironic that his films are more deeply spiritual than, in my opinion, anyone else’s. He did not believe, but he respected belief, and hope.
Not for his characters the consolations of tidy plots and snappy conversations. They are faced with the existential dilemma: What is the point of life when its destination is death? In “The Diary of a Country Priest,” the young hero welcomes the advice he receives from the local doctor and the old priest of a nearby parish. The doctor examines him, observes all the local people have been weakened by the alcoholism of their parents, warns him is undernourished, admonishes him, “face up to it!” The priest (as only a French priest might) attributes some of his problems to the fact that he doesn’t drink better wine. The priest’s advice is kind, practical, involved with the management of a parish. He treats the young man like a son. We sense he is a good old man and a good priest, but wary of devotion carried to dangerous extremes.
The star of this film, Claude Laydu, can hardly be seen to act at all. In life he was quite lively, and indeed hosted a TV show for children. Bresson had a famous theory that actors were “models.” He didn’t require them to act, and indeed would repeat a shot time and time again to remove visible signs of “acting.” The scenario, the visual strategy and the editing would encompass his story. The actor must not seem too proactive because his character is after all only a figure pushed here and there by life and fate. This sounds like a severe artistic discipline, but the result can be purifying. After emerging from one of his films, you may sometimes see conventional movie acting as foolish: The characters actually believe they can influence the outcome!