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Diary of a Country Priest (1951)


Ron Reed
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Notes � DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST

Fresh from viewing the film, I want to jot down impressions while the film is still fresh, before wading into discussion or reading about it, having meticulously avoided learning about it in advance. Just now scanned for a thread on the film, and while it's mentioned elsewhere, I don't see a dedicated thread. And if any film deserves one at A&F, I think DIARY just might qualify!

Apart from the moments when God intervenes � giving him words to say, the knowledge of the letter in the Count�s daughter�s pocket, etc � this young priest seems woefully, distinctly unsuited for the priesthood. The catechism class is dreadful � he doesn�t have the gifts for this work. When he realized he�d been set up by the girls for the remark about his eyes, he received this as if it were a crucifixion, a terrible cruelty � I could only think, �Com one, these are twelve year old girls, you�re the grown up here.� Reminded me of a long-time friend of mine, ultra-sensitive, intensely introspective, keyed to every doubt or slight or wavering in his inner spiritual state: is this sainthood, or spiritual narcissism? Hard to shed many tears about his via dolorosa when the wounds are so slight. Except, he is what he is: his skin really is that thin, and he has nowhere to turn for any help, no one to deliver him from this body of death, this raw-nerve-ending psyche. The objective reality/weight of the external causes for woe are irrelevent to the reality of suffering for the clinically depressed person: I can feel (another friend�s) agony regardless of his external circumstances. And I did feel a similar compassion for this tightly-wound, acutely sensitive priest: he felt agonies that would never touch his mentor, the robust meat-eating priest in the nearby village.

If it weren�t for the reality of his supernatural insights, I would take the priest as a hyper-sensitive neurotic, and feel pity if not admiration for him � a response not far removed from the contemptuous dismissal of the people in his parish, perhaps. But there�s no denying the reality of his spiritual acuity at certain moments. Or his efficacy as a priest, if not in the day-to-day parish work, certainly in specific moments / relationships. He speaks directly, with clarity and wisdom, to the Countess about the state of her soul, prepares her for death, serves as a midwife for her birth into eternity. His presence in the life of the defrocked priest toward the end of the film effects a connection between that man � caught up in an intellectual idolatry, and a less dire sexual compromise � and the mentor priest who has been so important to the Country Priest.

Is the country priest never named? How odd. Is this because our perspective on the story is so close to his, our window into the world limited to his diary? Or because his individuality (in an earthly sense) is unimportant, his name or biographical details � perhaps his anonymity is part of the smalness, humility, off-to-the-sideness of his life. (I think here of the Auden poem about Breughel.)

Amplified off-camera sounds important, as in MAN ESCAPED, although not as situation-specific (as they would be for a man in prison); cock crows, dog barks, motorcycle, gun shots, footsteps, maybe cows?

Memorable images: priest walking away in dark curving street near end of film. Priest coming down askew hillside with gnarled bare tree, just before fainting in the mud. Working on his diary with wine in lower left corner of composition, near end of film. The wine spilled, black as ink. I wonder about that final cross image, so spare and stylized, almost like a flag or a logo.

The defrocked priest�s girlfriend is an interesting sacrifice: refused marriage so that her man can return to the priesthood unencumbered should that day come, counting herself as dispensible for the greater good of his return to vocation.

The priest�s raw-nerve-ending sensitivity not only exaggerated the slights and sufferings he experienced, but sensitized him to experience as joy the small pleasures that would pass by a more �normal� person: the ease of early morning prayers, the cup of coffee, the motorcycle ride. And what a remarkable epiphany that ride is, to a man whose life has been so timid, small, constrained, apologetic, inward-focused. What a remarkable epiphany that ride is, open horizon and sky in a film that has been closed-in, interior, clouded, all gates and bars, bare trees and mud and stone walls. What a remarkable epiphany that smile is, after an hour and a half of stone faces, calculating eyes, pain and confusion.

It seemed so odd to me that the story of a man working out his calling in a specific parish would end outside the parish. In a more conventional story, all the events and circumstances and relationships built throughout the film culminate in the climactic events: I imagined some terrible betrayal by people in the parish that would provide the priest with his inevitable-from-the-outset crucifixion (what else would you expect for a man so ill-placed in the world, whose entire diet is the flesh and blood of Him who was crucified?). It felt strangely detached for him to meet his end in a different place, with people we�d never met, almost anti-climactic. One thing that says to me is that the focus is entirely inward/spiritual, on the priest and the state of his soul, not outward/social, on relationships and interpersonal actions. It partakes of the same other-worldy quasi-narcissism that makes me nervous in the priest himself, but it is what it is, and gives me much to contemplate.

How odd that the priest ends up holding the older priest in the nearby village in such esteem, his mentor/master. The two are constitutionally/tempermentally so very different, the mentor forceful and robust, unlikely (and unwilling) to be wounded or even troubled by the pettiness of his parishoners or the privations of his work. Apart from his authoritarianism, I would naturally tend to favour the latter�s approach: it seems healthier, wiser, less neurotic, simply more grown-up. But the young priest�s �hyper-sensitivity� to the small cruelties and petty immoralities of his parishioners is in fact a truer spiritual discernement: he is deeply troubled, grieved, wounded, appalled by their small moral lapses, perceiving them as things which fundamentally alienate them from God. And the film is pretty clear that the younger priest is right in his approach, right to take these petty things with such seriousness. And it convinces me of the same. (I�m also overstating my reaction to the older priest: as much as I percieved Young Priest as hyper-sensitive, I saw Older Priest as insensitive, or at least under-sensitive.)

As the film drew to a close, I couldn�t help thinking how easily the priest was getting off: dying from stomach cancer can be a much more agonizing, protracted and demeaning process than he experiences: get the diagnosis, drink the coffee, go to friend�s apartment, vomit up blood, die. Then it occurred to me that we�d been watching his protracted death through the whole film: every minute onscreen, he was dying of stomach cancer, unknown to us or him. And suddenly my perception of him as ultra-sentitive, not really a hero, not facing difficulties that were nearly as great as he made them out to be, was fundamentally changed: I�d been watching a man dying of cancer, who in fact made very little of his own suffering, which must have been tremendous. What a stunning reversal of my perceptions, and what artistry on behalf of Bresson, or Bernanos, or whoever should get credit for constructing the story in that way.

What an extraordinary companion piece, then, to IKIRU, where we learn in the opening frames that Mr Watanabe will die of stomach cancer within a certain number of months, though he does not realize that fact yet. In both films we observe a man dying of the same horrific malady, and in neither is that information meted out in a conventional way. Kurosawa delivers it immediately, taking away all the potential (conventional) dramatic impact of the revelation, stripping the story of any potential for a certain kind of melodrama (though maximizing the story�s potential pathos). Bresson withholds the information until very nearly the final moments of the film, though we�ve been observing the disease and its progress throughout � by this he accomplishes a last-minute re-interpretation on the viewer�s part of all that has gone before. (Though I�m sure some other viewers anticipated that development long before, and the information was more an inevitable confirmation than a revelation: they would experience the film differently. But I have to think that my response to the film is partly engendered by Bresson/Bernanos: there are dozens (hundreds?) of story/filmic elements that incline me to perceive the priest as a weak man rather than a strong man, over-sensitive rather than heroic. I have to blame B&B � they set me up!)

I�m puzzled by the section in the film when the young priest talks about the realization that he and his mentor would be parting ways from that point on: it seemed to me that the two men were really connecting for the first time. I liked the fact that the young priest�s re-connection with his seminary acquaintance has initiated a reconnection to faith and the church, that the alienated priest has written an extensive letter to the older priest, and will be meeting him. I can�t help but think he�ll get his faith and vocation restored to him through the encounter. (How wonderful that this passing of the spiritual flame is accomplished through a typed letter, echoing/reinventing the film's repeated mode of discourse, the hand-written diary.)

A favourite favourite scene for me was when Seraphima (?) finds the young priest in the mud and cleans him up. So tender, such a reversal of my perceptions of the girl, restoring some of the goodness/innocence I perceived in her (along with the young priest) when first we met her in the catechism class. What a nuanced, complex portrait, this young woman who schemes and manipulates but also does things to keep the priest in her life (at least, that�s what I make of the briefcase in the mud), who cleans the vomit from the faces of the boys who drink too much at the town dances as readily as she cleans the mud and blood from the face of the priest. I remember that early moment where the young priest yearns for some human kindness or contact: to think that, in a sense, we live with that unfulfilled longing for all this time, and that it�s fulfilled so unexpectedly by this girl, growing up cruel in a heartless place.

Those reversals of character perceptions are a common element of this film (as they are in IKIRU, interestingly enough). I think of the Count�s daughter: we first meet her in the church, praying and hiding her tears, and later learn that she has given the priest a note encouraging him to leave the parish for his own protection: of course, the latter gesture is not the act of friendship I first took it for. But even once we perceive her as something of a demon, our perceptions continue to be shaken, in the final extended scene she has with the young priest: her soul is in jeopardy, but not yet lost; a liar (his unwillingness to hear/trust her confession is a potent expression of how corrupted she has become) and manipulator, but there is still some attraction toward truth: in fact, she is not a demon, but simply a human.

Thoughts, anyone?

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Ron, this is a fantastically beautiful meditation on the film. I don't know how much I have to add.

One thing though, your final paragraph makes me think you're confusing the Governness (who is having an affair with the Count) with Chantal, the Count's daughter?

I'll try to write more later...

FWIW, my review can be found here.

Edited by Doug C
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One thing though, your final paragraph makes me think you're confusing the Governness (who is having an affair with the Count) with Chantal, the Count's daughter?

Oh, quite possible! I often have trouble with confusing characters - other people are better able to keep them separate just by physical appearance, but I usually need more. And with so little spelled out in this movie... Thanks for the tip. I'll give those scenes a closer look.

FWIW, my review can be found here.

Thanks, I'll give it a look! (Actually, that was going to be my next stop, just as soon as I'd scanned other threads here at A&F).

And Alan, that's just plain weird that we're watching the same flick at the same time. (Cue Twilight Zone theme....)

Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Ron wrote:

: What an extraordinary companion piece, then, to IKIRU, where we learn in the

: opening frames that Mr Watanabe will die of stomach cancer within a certain

: number of months, though he does not realize that fact yet. In both films we

: observe a man dying of the same horrific malady, and in neither is that

: information meted out in a conventional way.

What a fascinating connection. I saw Country Priest once at the Cinematheque, several years ago, but have not seen it since. I'll have to check it out again some day.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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FWIW, my review can be found here.

Great piece, Doug! Tons of insightful detail. Thanks tons.

the "simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery
Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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And if any film deserves one at A&F, I think DIARY just might qualify!

If it were up to me, I'd have a pre-release thread, a release non-spoiler thread, a release spoiler thread, and a post-release thread for the DVD--just like some other movies around here.

Except, he is what he is: his skin really is that thin, and he has nowhere to turn for any help, no one to deliver him from this body of death, this raw-nerve-ending psyche. The objective reality/weight of the external causes for woe are irrelevent to the reality of suffering for the clinically depressed person: I can feel (another friend
Edited by Doug C
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So the
Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm currently thinking about showing this film in my film discussion group. I've been wanting to show a few more "challenging" and "classic" films, and I think this one would fit the bill. Anything I should keep in mind?

(Oh, and if noone minds, I plan on using this discussion thread as a resource. wink.gif)

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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  • 2 weeks later...

We watched the film last Monday, and overall, I thought the screening went really well. I was a little worried as to how people might take to Bresson's style, but it didn't seem to bother anyone at all. We were really lucky in that one of the associate pastors, who is a big fan of the original novel, came. He read a few excerpts, and was able to provide some comparisons between the film and the novel, which was great.

One thing that really struck me this last time viewing was the film's ending. The last image we see of the priest is him huddled in a blanket, a look of terror and anxiety on his face. And yet, as the priest is reading the letter, we hear that he died in peace, with a smile on his face, almost as if that last final horror had somehow purified him and had finally allowed him to grasp that "all is grace". I find that dichotomy very intriguing.

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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  • 3 months later...

I saw this yesteerday, and whilst I wasn't blown away by my first viewing (my first ever Bresson - how I have been around here for so long and not seen one earlier I don't know), I could tell that there was so much there to draw out on second and subsequent viewings.

The DVD I have (which is from Hong Kong) also has a commentary track - not by Bressonm himself by some one called Peter Ca.... or something not Peter Kay, but sounded a bit like it!. Do you know of him Doug (if you're still reading, though I suppose you can't post at the moment. He talks a little too much about the book for my liking and a little to little about the visual aspects but I've only watchged bits rather than the full 2 hours yet. [edit - I see you'v eheard this too as you mention it at the foot of your review. Interesting that I share your misgivings]

I echo much of Ron's comments. The parallels with Christ's Passion were very very subtle. I couldn't help thinking that that if they had been in another film they might have been missed entirely. But once you start looking the parallels do seem to flow.

The comments above about the letter scene are interesting. When I saw it I thought it was a great example of divine inspiration, but the commentator just put it down to intuitive reasoning, and it seemed equally clear from that perspective too.

What I really liked about the film was th eway you have to fill so much information for yourself. There is an awful lot inferred. so for example his suffering at the hanmds of his parishoners, as Ron says, never seems that bad,. But what I like about the film is that it gives you reason to think there is plenty of abuse of him going on, even if it isn't shown. There were quite a few instances of this.

My favourite shot would have to been the one of the cross on his wall seen through the window which also has the apppearance of a cross, onl yone of those (pagan) ones where the top piece is looped. I also liked the way the ink as well the wine acts as a mtphor fopr Christs blood. This is one of the advantages of Black and White that such interpretation can be added. The blotting paper at times seemed very bloody.

So yeah - thanks to all of you who have raved about this over the years, much enjoyed, and I look forward to watching it again.

Matt

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Since Doug isn't around at the moment, Matt, I'll clip a bit from his review of the DVD:

It also includes an audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, which unfortunately is quite pedestrian. Cowie was the founding editor of the annual International Film Guide for forty years and he's a dependable historian of world cinema who has written over twenty books, many of which focus on Nordic films. He has provided good audio commentaries for past Criterion releases such as Wild Strawberries and Hiroshima mon amour. But to our knowledge, he hasn't made any serious contributions to Bressonian scholarship and given the informative but rare English writing on Bresson, we would've preferred that Criterion had enlisted a Bresson specialist, even if it would've necessitated the subtitling of a French commentary.

The main disappointment of Cowie's commentary is that he spends vast portions of it reading from Bernanos' novel in order to compare Bresson's treatment with the source material, but this requires skipping over many formal details in scene after scene. The information he provides on Bresson seems either too colloquial (comparing Bresson to his favorite New York martinis) or questionable in its accuracy (he asserts that Bresson was an agnostic, thus dismissing decades of Jansenist commentary as well as Bresson's own varied statements on the subject).

Cowie commendably notes that appreciation for Bresson can and does encompass a wider spectrum than Catholic thinkers alone, but he seems too eager to dismiss the specifically Catholic milieu of Diary for a few nebulous statements on religious values in general. He attempts to justify the film's universal value by reducing "all the major religions and philosophies" into the same basic idea of enlightenment. While we appreciate his concern for universality, it doesn't make for very rigorous textual or religious scholarship--it's doubtful there's a Buddhist, for example, who won't cringe when Cowie blithely defines Nirvana as a "state of grace."

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  • 4 weeks later...

Ron wrote:

: By the way, how does DIARY compare to UNDER THE SUN OF SATAN?

You may get a chance to find out for yourself, Ron! I just got this from the Pacific Cinematheque, though I don't think it's up on their website yet:

VANCOUVER - "POSTERITY," said Maurice Pialat in 2003, one year before his death, "can shove it for all I care." But through a filmography of savage honesty and uncomfortable objectivity, the great French director ensured a posterity referenced by a new generation of European filmmakers like Bruno Dumont, Claire Denis, Erick Zonca, Olivier Assayas, and others. Pacific Cinematheque presents cinema that relentlessly "pushes realism farther than any film artist ever has" (Jay Scott) in a retrospective that includes all eleven features by a Pialat, who was lauded in Europe, but largely overlooked overseas.

Directors such as Cassavetes, Olmi, Bresson, and Renoir are frequently cited as reference points for Pialat's highly distinctive work. Intimate, explosive, and remarkably unsentimental, Pialat's films tend to focus on the emotional traumas precipitated by life's trials and transitions: adolescence, the break-up of a relationship, family turmoil, death, a crisis of faith. His approach to narrative strives for a directness and truthfulness of expression and experience uncommon in cinema, without the orthodox exposition that typically introduces characters, provides context, or marks the passage of time. His approach to character is always rigorously non-judgemental, "accumulating nuances of behaviour which may be separately insignificant but which together spell emotional crisis" (David Wilson).

[ snip ]

Under the Sun of Satan (Sous le soleil de Satan)

France 1987. Director: Maurice Pialat

Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire, Maurice Pialat, Alain Artur, Yann Dedet

WINNER -- Palme d'Or, Cannes 1987. A dark and demanding study of faith and evil adapted from a novel by Georges Bernanos, the film features a powerful performance by Gerard Depardieu as Father Donissan, a simple cleric troubled by his own failings as a priest, and given to sadomasochistic self-torture in an attempt to ward off the temptations of flesh and spirit. Director Pialat appears as his concerned superior, while Sandrine Bonnaire (A Nos Amour) is riveting as Mouchette, the sixteen-year-old adulteress and murderer whose sins convince Donissan that Satan indeed rules the world. Colour, 35mm, in French with English subtitles. 98 mins.

[ snip ]

Under the Sun of Satan

Friday, May 20 - 9:25 pm

Sunday, May 22 - 6:30 pm

(Hopefully it won't clash with your performances in Shadowlands...)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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: I just got this from the Pacific Cinematheque, though I don't think it's up on their

: website yet . . .

NOW it is.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 4 years later...

I've been on this thread for a few days, reflecting with it, almost meditating with it. It's soaked in wisdom and fun, great comments from some very respected folks.

I'm just not gellin' with this Bresson. I get it, I think. I know all the reasons I should love it closer than a brother. OK, it's a film, maybe not that close. But you know what I mean. Intellectually, I can understand every reason that Diary of a Country Priest is a wonderful -- even "spiritual" -- story.

But it doesn't touch me in any way. And one of the reasons for this is that Bresson just sucks the life out of these actors -- or was this made before he began to use that approach? I don't know. But the performances are so flat, so dry. The life of all the richness in this story just seems to have been sucked out.

I don't see a reason for this to stay as high up in our Top 100 as it is, especially several places in front of Au hasard Balthazar, which can be moved up.

Then again, it took me years, and several viewings, to really fall for Au hasard Balthazar. It also took the commentary on the criterion track, and a lot of voices here that encouraged me to stick with it. The commentary on Diary of a Country Priest is as dry and lifeless as the acting in the film.

Give me six or eight more years. I might just disagree with myself. Maybe by the time I'm 85, should I live that long, I'll love everything Bresson has put out. But for now -- 3 out of 5. I like it, but that's about the best I can do.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 1 year later...
There's a "60th Anniversary Presentation" showing at the Music Box in Chicago April 22nd-28th.

sad.gif I tried so hard to get to this while it was at Film Forum ... but I just couldn't get away. I must not be living right.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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I believe the first time I saw The Diary of a Country Priest was at the Music Box. And, well, I thought it was, you know, just kinda OK. Then later I saw the Criterion version and instantly fell in love. I don't own too many films -- definitely less than 100 -- but these days I own this one.

I have not had any sleep the last few days. I was thinking of Au hasard Balthazar. Nevermind!

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 3 months later...

Actor Claude Laydu dies at 84

French actor Claude Laydu, who starred in the title role of Robert Bresson's classic film "Diary of a Country Priest," died on July 29 of a heart condition in Paris. He was 84.

Laydu made his screen debut in Bresson's 1951 film, an adaptation of Georges Bernanos' 1937 novel about a sickly but ascetic young cleric at his first parish in a small provincial town that proves hostile to his earnest morality.

Born in Brussels, Laydu was a young actor at Theatre Marigny in Paris (and a practicing Catholic) when Bresson chose him for the role, for which he lost weight to achieve the necessary gaunt appearance.

Laydu appeared in more than a dozen films during the 1950s. His second film was the 1951 light comedy "Le Voyage en Amerique," starring Pierre Fresnais, but his role in "Diary of a Country Priest" influenced the tenor of his career. At least twice he appeared again as a priest, in Rafael Gil's critically acclaimed 1953 film "I Was a Parish Priest," in which Laydu starred, and 1954's "Rasputin," and he played Saint Etienne in the religious epic "The Road to Damascus"; portrayed the brother of a nun in "Les dialogues des Carmelites"; and wrestled with big moral questions in "Au coeur de la casbah" and "Nous sommes tous des assassins," about the death penalty. . . .

Variety, August 10

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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