Diary of a Country Priest
(Journal d'un curé de campagne)
“Ponderous”? Yes. “Slow”? Indeed. But Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest is an undisputed classic. It was the third of thirteen films by Bresson who, according to Francois Truffaut, is to French movies what Mozart is to German music. And it may be the best entry point for appreciating his unique style.
A sensitive new priest (Claude Laydu) moves into a parish in Northern France so he can serve a small village called Ambricourt, only to discover he is less than welcome. As the town’s dark secrets emerge, his attempts to provide insight or comfort fall on deaf ears, and the weight of the troubles threaten to crush him. He doesn’t get along well with the older priest up the road, who shows little concern for how the villagers have hurt his feelings. A local countess is in pieces over the death of her son. The countess’s husband is carrying on an extramarital affair with their daughter’s governess. And their daughter, a cynical and resentful adolescent named Séraphita (Martine Lemaire), is becoming quite a monster. Exhausted by stomach trouble, the priest relies on what little nourishment he can draw from a strict diet of hard bread and wine. His “godless” doctor does little to lift his spirits. His plight inspires our sympathies, even though he lacks any kind of charm.
A master class in visual composition and sound design, Diary has influenced filmmakers for generations by proving the gravity of telling cinematic stories without many of the common enhancements we’ve been conditioned to expect. Its rare glimpses of the French countryside are stark and striking, suggesting that any man who would truly pursue holiness will walk hard roads through desolate lands.
— Jeffrey Overstreet