Wednesday, May 4, 2011

#222: Diary of a Country Priest

(Robert Bresson, 1951)

Bresson is the French Ozu. Both directors zero in on the most elemental aspects of their respective culture and present meditations on them in clean, purposefully simplistic ways in order to deliver far from simplistic climactic moments. This comparison has been made countless times, most famously by Paul Schrader in his well-regarded work of film theory, Transcendental Style in Film. But it's worth making here because both directors are an acquired taste that is difficult to approach without measuring their work against the hype.

I first encountered Bresson in high school when a teacher introduced me to A Man Escaped. It took two viewings to understand the reputation of the film, but once I got it I wondered how I had gone so long without it. Bresson's work - never more than in that masterpiece - is at its core a meditation on existentialism in the original sense, which is to say it is infused with Christianity and the nature of man. This religious aspect was never more literal than it is in Diary of a Country Priest, another of Bresson's most well-regarded films (and one of the few I haven't previously watched).

The film is quite literally as advertised, charting the ups and downs (mostly the latter) of a young priest placed in a parish in a small town generally uninterested in his presence.  The easiest comparison to Diary of a Country Priest that can be made is to Bergman's Winter Light. Both films deal with priests struggling with their inability to help their parish, and both films feature a suicide the respective priests were unable to prevent. But Bergman's Winter Light asks for meaning in a meaningless world, while Bresson seems to be constantly reaching for a divinity that is right in front of his protagonist's face - the film famously concludes that "All is grace." This might be part of the reason why it failed to move me in the way Winter Light did, but I also think Bresson's films - like Ozu's, and unlike Bergman's by the way - need a running start to jump into their rhythms at the right time. If you are out of step when entering his world, it can seem like a very lonely place.

Side note: I just noticed that this film sits next to Ikiru in the collection in terms of release order. Remind me not to attempt that double feature.

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