‘Diary of a Country Priest’ 1951
Today I watched Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), his third feature film. Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos, it’s an episodic story about a priest’s interactions with those in his community. He’s very diligent in carrying out his duties, and sincere in his faith.
He has to deal with a young girl in his communion class who cruelly teases him in the way which children so often do with their air of childish innocence, his kindly superior’s gentle criticisms, a local doctor who has lost his faith, and the philandering wealthy count, who is carrying on with his daughter’s governess. The community is full of the typical gossip-mongering of a small country town. When the countess dies, suspicion that the young priest was too harsh with her regarding her waning faith due to the loss of her son, places pressure on him by his superiors to publicly justify what went on behind closed doors. The suicide of the doctor, plus the priest’s ongoing mysterious stomach complaints, accumulate with the other issues to causes a crisis of faith. His physical and spiritual sufferings are too much for his body to endure and he fades away and dies. Although it was only his third feature film, made at age fifty, it’s very professionally made, and one of the things consistent with his later films, is drawing naturalistic performances from his actors. The use of the camera is very confident and many of the images use effective lighting, and shadows to further illustrate the priest’s inner mind, and the relentless torment of his situation. Even sound, something which he develops and uses effectively in other films, is used occasionally to build tension as well. In one scene, the sound of the gardener’s hoe is used to underscore a conversation happening indoors. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the sound during the conversation, but sometimes the sound is naturalistic and other times it is inordinately loud, the volume level changing to underline specific parts of the conversation. Bresson’s use of music is much more conventional than in some of his later films when he used classical music. A gentle orchestral score has been composed for the film by Jean-Jacques Grunenwald. For his next two films which are very documentary-like in style he doesn’t employ a composer, but for The Trial of Joan of Arc, music is credited to Francis Seyrig (who wrote music for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad ), and for Au Hasard Balthazar, Jean Wiener (one of France’s most experienced composers with over 100 composing credits), who wrote scores for Bresson’s following two films, Mouchette (1967) and A Gentle Woman (1969).