(29/03/08) – The cinema of Robert Bresson, although not as ‘popular’ as the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, with whom it is possible to make parallels, is nonetheless acknowledged as one of the greatest bodies of work in the history of the medium. His minimalist and spiritual films arguably are some of the most rewarding experiences that narrative cinema can offer.
Bresson’s cinematic legacy is always linked to his catholicism and austere vision of human nature, which informed the content and style of his fatalist films. He was also a believer in the pure cinematic form. The very minimalism of his films, the use of amateur actors, his meticulous cinematography and use of sound as comment create a visual grammar that is achieveable with the film medium only. He manages to infuse the simplest stories and settings with such universality that you have the impression the film really is about you.
Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne, based on a book by Georges Bernano) was made in 1951. It was Bresson’s third feature (the first two were Angels of the Streets (1943) and Ladies of the Park (1945)) and won the International Award in Venice in 1952. Claude Laydu plays a sickly, idealist priest as he arrives at his first parish, a rural microcosm that stands in as a metaphor of the whole world. As his health quickly deteriorates, he plunges into an emotional crisis as his efforts to spiritually awaken his constituents are met with apathy, cynicism and even hostility. Notes from a diary he assiduously kept give the film its structure and psychological dimension.
Diary of a Country Priest was the first film in which Bresson used non-professional actors. This became his trademark style, with the actors serving as ‘models’ rather than meticulous interpreters of the characters’ motivations (in this film, this is left to the diary notes). Laydu is a great example of how this technique works. With the build and appearance of a gentle catholic saint and wearing almost the same anguished expression throughout the film, he is more than a character, but rather a perfectly sculpted, mobile statue.
It is difficult to put into words how such a simple film can mesmerise the viewer so intensely. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of the director’s technique: perhaps a camera movement that unveils a subtle truth; the framing of a scene; a sound. The film’s formal unity is so natural that analysing it too much feels almost like an attack on a pristine ecosystem. Just see it and marvel at Bresson’s sensitivity and mastery of film language.
Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne) is out now on Optimum. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and help Kamera by doing so.