Diary of a Country Priest Review

The Film

Robert Bresson's films are earnest and austere affairs. Life in his movies seems an unhappy vale of tears that must be endured in order to get to the serious business of heaven. Humour is almost non-existent, style is barren, and the plain representation of his stories is such as to disappoint those who want melodrama or easy morality. His films eschew dramatical flourishes or "performances" from his cast, as the director seeks a realistic and dour mise-en-scene where his actors are merely models for his camera.

It was probably with Diary of a Country Priest that Bresson's work became truly distinctive. His preceding Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne had an elegant script and the cleverness of Jean Cocteau's words, it retained a sense of glamour that the film-maker was to become the antithesis of in later life. Following it with an adaptation of George Bernanos' novel, he found a subject and style that was to become one that would obsess him throughout his work - that of sincere examination of the trials of the spirit. His approach to cinema would become a very Catholic one with saintly suffering and redemptive power at the heart of his greatest works.
This story of a young priest fighting vested interest, gossip, and the collective worldliness of his first parish does seem like a passion play at times, with defeat piled upon defeat for the idealist. The story also touches on the physical needs of a young man suffering the torment of illness and the temptations of compromise, but our young priest is a man apart, a man whose virtue makes him hated and envied. He tries to win the influence he needs to succeed from the powerful yet he can't ignore the sins he sees in their household and this becomes the obstacle to his success. As a priest he is formidable but as a politician he is a novice - his door is open to everyone, even his enemies.

He is in the midst of a world of adultery, hearts turned to stone, indifference to poverty and maliciousness. His flock is offended by his efforts to change their lot and some seem to enjoy the torture he feels because of their untruths and taunting. His parishioners upbraid him for wanting payment for funerals, and spread evil words to make him seem pathetic and lost. The young priest even sees the class mates from the seminary who have left their calling, happy in non-celibate poverty, and the young men of his own age sent off to war, and he endures all his roads not taken beatifically as his own health fails, stating that "God doesn't want us to be unhappy".
The martyrdom depicted here will not win many atheists over to belief, but the unrelenting depiction of the suffering of the good will chime with many who believe or don't. Despite the rumours, the humiliations, the lies and his mortal self, the young man persists, certain of his faith and convinced of his duty, and this affirmation of faith despite the cruelty of the world is hypnotic and brilliant. Bresson offers no false redemption as he shares the beautiful conviction of a man lost among men who tries to lead a life to inspire those lost in the mud and malaise, and this determination makes the example of the priest more powerful as form follows story.

The acting is generally in the low key register that would mark his following films but with professional actors allowed to emote more than his later "models" would. Bresson captures a world of drudgery and assailing elements, of almost total faithlessness, with the stark black and white photography, and the rare flashes of music from Jean Jacques Grunewald support the spiritual journey we share. Diary of a Country Priest is a great film that shows the greatest of French directors starting to find his own voice.

The Disc

Optimum give the disc some interesting artwork which I rather like when compared to the ultra spartan Criterion disc. This is a bare-bones treatment but it is on a dual layer disc and possesses a transfer that is very similar to the existing R1 disc. In the screen-shots below, the Optimum disc appears first with the Criterion after it:





The captures from both discs show goodish contrast, the bottom two show a bit too much grain in the image for my liking but this seems relatively similar with both transfers. The main improvement seems to be that there is a little more detail and sharpness with the Optimum disc(see the priest hair in the first capture). Both transfers come from a print which shows damage in terms of hairs and marks and both audio tracks also show the film's age as well with pops, background noise and crackling. Both discs use the same subtitles. To my eye, the Optimum disc is marginally superior in terms of transfer but does not possess the commentary or essay that came with Criterion's disc.


Here in the UK, April promises to be a fine month for Bresson lovers with Artificial Eye releasing Lancelot du Lac and A Man Escaped, and this is a fine starter to those discs. New viewers of the film will enjoy this release and videophiles may welcome the improved transfer as well.

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