Robert Bresson's tragic masterpiece The Diary of a Country Priest tells the story of a young priest who becomes a failure. The young man's face looks withdrawn and solemn throughout the story as he becomes strained trying to carry out the responsible duties of a priest at his new local parish; doing his best in making a positive influence within his community. He truly believes God has sent him to the small town of Ambricort to help his local population during the cold and bleak winter, but when arriving his flock mock him, spread cruel gossip about him being a drunkard and eventually drive him to the bitter point of defeat. He offers the people in his parish his help but they refuse to accept, one by one crossing their names from a list, while only one person attends his weekly mass in which their intentions when attending seem to be not even spiritual. He cannot understand the hate and hostility that the townspeople feel towards him and so he writes his thoughts down in a daily journal in which he records his frustrations, his pain and his actions which are very dear to him. Because of his failing health which is unclear until later in the film, the priest lives on a strict diet of only bread, soup and cheap wine, because his stomach cannot hold down any meats or vegetables. He often looks very tired, weak and sick, coughing up blood, and on one occasion becomes faint and collapses outside and into the mud. Along with Carl Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, Diary of a Country Priest has been called by many as one of the greatest Catholic films ever made. Both of these films center on tragic characters who are strong believers in faith and who inhabit a cruel sinful society that tries their best to set out and destroy them. Robert Bresson is considered one of the great masters in the art form of the cinema and most of his films center around the harsh themes of pain, redemption, sin, death, and human cruelty. Even though Robert Bresson was raised in a strict Catholic upbringing he eventually became an Agnostic and focused his Catholic teachings within the framework of several of his films. In his book, Sculpting in Time, legendary director Andrei Tarkovsky describes Bresson as "perhaps the only artist in cinema, who achieved the perfect fusion of the finished work with a concept theoretically formulated beforehand." The priest of Ambricort starts out as a young and ambitious man who truly believes in what he is doing, but within time and with the slow failing of his health he not only comes to lose his ambition as a priest, but he loses his faith in God as well.
The opening of the film shows the new priest of Ambricourt writing in his diary: "I don't think I'm doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.” The new priest (Claude Laydu) rides into the small town of Ambricort which will be the location of his new parish. Once entering Ambricort on his bike he stops to take a breath as he wipes the sweap off his forehead. He than realizes that he is not welcome by the townspeople and he also catches the Count of Ambricort secretly embracing his governess Miss Louise, and when they both notice the priest staring they uncomfortably walk away.
The first day arriving to his new parish the priest begins to write in his diary: "My Parish. My first parish. Must I believe that it's only for duty's sake that I refuse to acknowledge my poor health? My bicycle is very useful but I can't ride uphill on an empty stomach without feeling faint. I deliberately cut out meats and vegetables eating small quantities of wine-soaked bread whenever I feel dizzy. I add a lot of sugar to the wine. I let my bread harden for several days. Thanks to this diet, my head is clear, and I feel much stronger." Old Mr. Fabregars of Ambricourt arrives to the priests parish to quarrel with him about the cost of his wife's funeral and Mr. Fabregars angrily suggests that the young priest is exploiting the poor.
The priest is distraught and rides over to the next town to see the priest of Torcy who is his friend and mentor to talk about the situation of The Fabregars. Torcy says to him, "You young priests. In my time they made men of the church, leaders of parishes, real masters! Seminaries these days send us choirboys, young ragamuffins who think they're working harder than anyone because they never manage to finish anything. At the first sign of difficulty they say the priesthood isn't what they expected and drop everything. Besides exterminating the devil, your other dream is to be loved for who you are. A true priest is never loved. The church doesn't care a whit whether you're loved, my son. Be respected, obeyed. Keep order all day long knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow, because in this sorry world, the night undoes the work of the day."
Torcy's words came back to the young priest as he peels his potatoes for his soup at his home. The electrician comes by to inform the priest that the electricity will be on soon. The Priest wants to confront the man of his cabaret that he runs in the town because he is told the man puts on dances calling it 'the family’s ball' in which he has boys getting younger girls drunk. He decides not to confront him on the issue and one afternoon continues to write his thoughts in his journal: "I was expecting a lot from catechism class, the children preparing for Holy Communion. The girls had given me hope, especially Seraphita Dumouchel." The student Seraphita that he favors stands up in class and says, "To establish the Eucharist. Jesus broke bread and gave it to His disciples, saying, 'Take and eat. This is my body."
The priest excuses the class but asks Seraphita to stay. He asks her if she is anxious to make her communion yet. Seraphita says no and then teases the priest by saying he has such beautiful eyes; with her girlfriends purposely outside of the class giggling and hearing everything. That evening the priest is writing in his diary: "They have plotted together, But why such hostility? What had I done to them?"
The only person who attends holy mass on Sundays is the Count's governess Miss Louise and yet her position as a governess at the manor dictates a distance between her and the priest. During one of her prayers, the priest sees her covering her face knowing she is trying to hide the fact that she was crying. When alone with the governess she explains to the priest how her boss Miss Chantal enjoys humiliating her while treating her like a servant. The governess tells him that the Countess once had a son that she adored but he died and that no one in the manor even mentions him. The priest says to the governess that he will call on the Count that next Thursday.
His diary continues: "This visit to the manor has me quite worried. A good first impression could spell success of my plans for a youth club and sports program. The count's influence and wealth could help me to achieve them." When arriving to the Count's manor the priest notices the Counts young daughter Miss Chantal on the property giving him a cold and barren look. After the priests meeting with the Count the priest brings up his land which is barren and his barn which is empty and how it would be perfect for a youth club; but the Count has to think it offer.
In the Priests diary he writes, "He's said to be hard on his farmers, and he's no model parishioners. Why has he so quickly become the so desperately rare friend, ally and companion?" One day the Count arrives to the priests home to give him news on the youth club and also gives him a dead rabbit he had shot and killed as a gift for rabbit stew. The priest can't have rabbit stew because his stomach cannot tolerate dry bread; but he says nothing to the Count and accepts the gift. The Count sits down and says to the priest that he approves of his ideas of the youth club but he warns him how the townspeople are malicious.
He tells the Priest, "Don't be in too much of a hurry. Let them take the first step. There is no urgency." The priest tells him that these things are dear to his heart but the Count says so is the Count's land and barn, and they will discuss these future ideas at another time. "I hesitate sir, to mention your daughter," the priest says to the Count before he leaves. The priest says to the Count that he is worried about his daughter Chantel's sadness and her face looks far from cheerful. He then starts to say, "Would a little more understanding from Miss Louise..." The Count gets angry at the priests comment and calls him mad angrily leaving.
In the priests next diary response he writes, "The mention of Miss Louise's name seemed to upset him terribly. His face hardened. Why?" The Priest decides to return to the Count's manor to speak with him as the Count and the governess are watching him arrive from the 2nd floor window of the manor. The priest meets the Countess when invited into the manor by their servant. Surprising her because of his sudden visit he notices the Countess grieving over the pictures of her dead son. The Countess walks up to the priest and asks why he has stopped by. She then says, "Your parishioners worry you a good deal, Father. Yet, it's such a small parish. It's a strange task you've been entrusted with. How little we know what a human life really is." The Priest starts to sweat when hearing the Countess's aggressive comments and after his stomach starts to become painful he says that he must quickly leave. "I'm seriously ill. I was first struck by this disease six months ago," he writes in his diary.
The priest goes to see his doctor Delbende who was introduced by Father Torcy and who is now retired. When seeing him Delbende tells the priest to go home and get some rest and he'll give him a call. Delbende tells the young priest that the priest from Torcy told Delbende a lot about him and of his strong faith. Delbende says to the priest, "You and Torcy and I are of the same race, an odd race. The race that holds on. And why does it hold on? No one quite knows. As a schoolboy I came up with a motto for myself. 'Face up to it.' Face up to what? I ask you. Injustice. I'm not one to go around babbling about justice. From whom should I ask it? I don't believe in God."
While laying there the priest thinks to himself how doctor Delbende has a deeply wounded soul as Delbende informs him that there's nothing he can do for his illness. One writing the priest makes in his diary is about Seraphita his student. It says: "Seraphita worries me a lot. I wonder sometimes if she hates me. She torments me with such exceptional maturity." One day while riding his bike to the school the priest sees Seraphita and politely stops to say hi. Seraphita rudely runs away but not before throwing her book bag onto the ground. The priest returns it to her mother later that afternoon and her mother takes Seraphita inside to scold her as she looks embarrassed because of her daughter's cruel behavior.
Another writing in his journal: "Yes, I scold myself for praying so little and so poorly. But do I have time to pray?" Later on the next day Torcy meets up with the young priest in Gesvres and later gives the priest a ride back to the rectory in Ambricort. Torcy tells the young priest that the Bishop must be hard up for priests to put a parish in the young Priests hands. He says, "I've known pupils who'd solve the toughest problems, just like that, out of spite. You’re too fussy. Just like a hornet in a bottle. But I think you have the spirit of prayer. Besides you have no common sense. Your great schemes don't hold water. As for knowledge of men, the less said the better. Face to face with a new parish, you cut an odd figure."
One night at 3:00 in the morning the priest can't sleep and decides to head to the church and pray quietly, calmly and desperately. Later that morning the priest gets an unsigned shocking letter saying that a well-wisher advises for him to seek a transfer to another parish, telling him that they feel sorry for him and the sooner he's out the better. A few days at the parish the priest makes a strange discovery and finds a bible that was left by the governess Miss Louise. The handwriting in the book was the exact handwriting of the person who sent him that anonymous letter.
The next few days the priest becomes depressed by the way the townspeople have been cruelly treating him and decides to not open the parish during a storm. He also realizes that he can't get himself to pray anymore feeling before him nothing but only a black wall. Isolating himself into his home for several days he walks around his home in a great depression. The priest feels only solitude and silence and wants to give up and surrender as he writes in his diary: "Suddenly something seemed to shatter in my breast, and I was seized by a trembling that lasted over an hour. What if it only been an illusion/ even the saints knew their hour of failure and loss. God has left me. Of this I'm sure..."
The next few days the priest hears the tragic news of Dr. Delbende. It is said that he committed suicide by shooting himself and the townspeople found his body at the edge of the woods near Bazancort. The priest and Father Torcy arrive to attend Dr. Delbende's funeral as Torcy becomes quite during the service of his friend. After the service Torcy tells the priest that Delbende was a very disheartened person because his younger colleagues spread the word that he knew nothing of antiseptics and he lost several of his patients. "But the truth is he'd lost his faith, and couldn't get over not believing" Torcy says.
The priest was in no condition to listen to Torcy because of the pain and suffering he was feeling in his stomach while he keeps hoping and believing he will likely never feel this again even when he dies. When the priest asked Torcy if he thinks Dr. Delbende killed himself Torcy says, "God is the only judge. Dr. Delbende was a just man, and God is the judge of the just. We're at war after all. One must face the enemy."
That evening the priest comes to a realization as he is sitting on his bed and thinks to himself, "No I haven't lost faith. This abrupt and cruel ordeal may have upset my reason, my nerves. But my faith remains. I can feel it. I stool up with the feeling. The certainty, that I had heard someone calling me...Yet I know I wouldn't find anyone."
Chantal, the Count's young daughter surprisingly arrives to the priest's house one day to ask the Priest to speak with her privately at his parish, and after she leaves the priest is confused at the strange request realizing he truly knows nothing about these townspeople. The priest heads to Torcy's home for advise but is told he is away and won't be back for several days. He than decides to arrive at the parish like he promised and when getting there he already finds Chantal there waiting for him.
The priest tells her he can't receive her confessions unless she does them within the confession booth, but Chantel says she isn't there for a confession. Chantel tells the priest that her mother the Countess is watching her and how much she hates her mother and would like to tear her eyes out, kill her and then kill herself. The priest asks her, "Have you no fear of God?" Chantel than says that ever since that governess Miss Louise came into the house she was convinced that her, her father and her mother are thinking of getting rid of her; with her mother even believing what her father and the governess are telling her.
Chantel starts to say how she's always hated her mother and how she is a fool and a coward. She also says how she hates her father as well and wants to run away and disgrace herself making sure her father hears of it. The priest is shocked at Chantal's hateful comments and realizes that Chantal has written a hateful letter to her father and that she plans on leaving him that night. The priest orders Chantal to give him the letter and return home. Chantal gives him the letter and says, "You must be the devil!" and quickly leaves the church.
The priest burns the unread letter at the fireplace in his home thinking to himself how he has failed reaching Chantal and that he is nothing but a miserable, unworthy priest believing God is punishing him.
The priest goes to the manor the next day and warns the Countess of Chantal's mental state, but the Countess doesn't believe her daughter will do anything rash because Chantal is afraid of death. Thinking of the Doctor the priest says to the Countess that those are the types of people who usually kill themselves, and yet the priest sees a uncaring and unemotional coldness in the Countess, as she asks him:.
"Someone must have told you that. It's outside your personal experience. Are you yourself afraid of death?"
"To die is difficult. Especially for the proud. I fear my death less than yours."
"My husband can keep whomever he likes here. Besides, the governess has no money. Perhaps he's been too attentive, too familiar...but suppose I don't care. After putting up with all these infidelities, suffering absurd humiliations shall I now, as an old woman to which I'm well resigned, open my eyes, put up a fight, take chances? For what? Shall I care more about my daughter's pride than my own? Let her put up with it as I have."
"Madam, be careful."
"Of what? Of whom? Of you? Let's not melodramatize. Such thoughts don't dictate my conduct. There's nothing in my past to blush out. "
"Blessed is sin if it teaches us shame."
"Nothing but words! Are you trying to worry me? Well, you won't. I have too much sense. Anyway, we'll be judged by our acts. What have I done wrong?"
"You're throwing a child out of your home, and you know it's forever."
"It's my husband’s wish. If he's wrong...He believes she'll come back."
"And do you believe that?"
"God will break you."
"God has broken me already. God took my son from me. What more can He do to me? I no longer fear him."
"God took him away for a time, but your hardness. The coldness of your heart may keep you from him forever."
"That's blasphemy! God does not take revenge! Are you saying my son might hate me?"
"You will no longer see or know each other."
"No sin can make a punishment just! This is madness! Nothing can part us from those we have loved more than life, more than salvation itself. Love is stronger than death. Your scriptures say so."
"We did not invent love. It has its order...its law."
"God is its master."
"He is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you would love, don't place yourself beyond love's reach. You must resign yourself. Open your heart. Our hidden sins poisons what others breathe."
"I should have killed myself. I go to Mass. I could have given up worship altogether. Indeed, I thought of it. I lived in peace, and I should have died in peace. God has ceased to matter to me. What will you gain by making me admit I hate Him, you fool?"
"You don't hate him now. Now at last you are face to face. He and you. You must yield to him unconditionally."
"You know what I was wondering a moment ago? I was saying to myself, 'If there were, in this world someplace free from God, if it meant suffering a death every second, eternally, I'd carry my son to that place.; and I'd say to God: Do your worst and crush us!' Is that monstrous?"
"What do you mean... no?"
"Because I too...have felt that way at times. Madame...If your God were the god of the pagans or philosophers, though he might take refuge in the highest heavens, our misery would drag him down. But as you know ours did not wait. You might shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, whip Him with rods, and finally nail Him to a cross. What would it matter? It is already done."
Eventually the priest urges the Countess to have faith and accept Christ's love, and the Countess undergoes a remarkable spiritual rebirth as her daughter watches from the window. The Countess breaks down and starts to weep as she impulsively tosses a medallion which includes the picture of her dead son into the fireplace. The priest quickly gets it out and places his hand on the Countess's head to comfort her weeping.
That evening the priest leaves heading home for Ambricort. When walking in his home the Gardner gives him a parcel from the Countess which was the small medallion, now empty, its chain broken and a letter thanking the priest for saving her from her solitude and hatred and finally giving her peace.
That evening the Countess dies and the next morning when the priest hears the tragic news he rushes to the manor to see her. When he sees her body he gets down on his knees and says a prayer over her. During her funeral the priest attends while thinking of the last memory of their struggle together as he lifts up her muslin veil while she is laying in the coffin and gently brushes her forehead.
When leaving the manor the priest overhears murmuring about him and when he gets a talk from the Count's uncle Canon he is told that people all over town are spreading rumors on the priests last conversation with the Countess. When Canon asks the Priest to write down the personal conversation that the two of them had, the priest chooses not to and tells him that no one could know anything that they said because no one was present there at the time. "What have I done wrong?" The priest asks Canon. "What have they got against me?" Canon says, "That you are what you are, and nothing can be done about that, my child. People don't hate your simplicity...they shield themselves from it."
The priest returns to the manor and Chantal lets him inside. She pushes him into the drawing-room and tells him that the governess is leaving and she is finally getting what she wanted. The priest says, "Little good it will do you. If you stay as you are, you'll always find someone to hate. But the only person you really hate is yourself."
The Count returns to the manor and tells the priest to stay out of his families affairs from now on and to leave his daughter alone. The Count says to him, "I disapprove of your indiscretions. Your character and your habits are a danger to the parish. I bid you good day father." While writing in his diary about his ordeal and the deception of his poor life the priest now finds it hard to continue his writing in his diary any longer.
Torcy one day arrives and talks to his younger colleague about his poor diet and lack of prayer, but the priest remains unable to focus on doing so. Torcy says, "You suffer too much to pray. That's how I see it." The priest tells him that he can't pray anymore and when Torcy goes on explaining to the priest on how everyone has an individual calling from God, the young priest starts to cry not even realizing it.
Torcy than tells him how he's been hearing malicious things about him, the Countess and all the melodrama with the medallion of hers. When the priest asked him how he knew about that Torcy says that the Countess's daughter saw the both of them together and has spread rumors that he had forced her mother to burn the one relic of her dead child leaving her spiritually distraught. "That's your version of what happened. I could tell a different one," the priest says.
He informs Torcy that the Countess died in peace finally accepting God and when Torcy asks how he would know that the priest chooses not to mention the letter that was given to him from her. Torcy tells the priest to stay away from the daughter Chantel because she is a demon but the priest says as long as he is the priest in this town he will close his doors to no one. For days the priest is worried that people in the town of Ambricort were secretly judging and accusing him of things he didn't do but he decides to let everyone judge his actions for himself.
While sitting home with an open bottle of wine, Torcy surprises him by arriving to his home to which the Priest accidentally gets up and spills the wine bottle on the floor right when Torcy enters the house. Seeing the broken bottle of wine on the floor, Torcy believes the priest has developed a drinking problem. "My poor child. So that's how it is. This isn't wine. It's some monstrous poison. With that stuff inside you it's a wonder you’re not dead."
Before Torcy leaves he tells the priest what a fine priest he is, and that God is not mad at him for the drinking because they all have been born by alcoholic parents in these small local towns; and tells him to pray for the Holy Virgin. After his health worsens, the priest goes to get help at a small local hospital and while walking home during the night he faints in the Auchy woods. While passed out on the ground he starts thinking that if the townspeople find him half dead it will create another scandal.
While weak and helpless on the ground the Holy Virgin that Torcy described earlier stands before him. The priest says, "A sublime creäture. Her hands...I stared at her hands. Now I'd see them, now they'd disappear. As my pain grew more extreme, I took one of them in mine." The priest passes out and hours later is found and awaked by Seraphita. She believes the town people probably drugged his drink for a cruel prank and is glad she found him before anyone else has.
After walking him back to his home the priest walks inside and realizes that he had lost a lot of blood. Having a sudden overbearing fear of death the priest decides to take the train to Lille the next morning and see a professional doctor. Before leaving that morning, Chantal makes a surprise visit while the Priest is packing. The priest asks her to help since she came all the way there against her father's will. Chantal becomes cruel when the priest tells her he will only listen to what she has to say in a confession booth and Chantel then rudely tells him her father can easily get him transferred since the whole town takes him for a drunkard.
Chantal reveals her cruel self to the Priest saying, "If you only know what I think of life. I want everything. I'll try everything. I will sin just for sin's sake." When the priest says that will be the moment she will find God she gets angry saying, "You think you can decide my fate against my will? I'll damn myself if I please." Chantal then reveals to the priest that she was at the window when he spoke to her mother saying, "Her expression became so gentle. I don't believe in miracles any more than ghosts but I think I knew my mother."
When leaving for Lille a man politely gives the priest a ride on his motorcycle and for the first time in the film the priest smiles thinking to himself and enjoys himself saying, "How could I feel so miraculously young then? Yes, as young as my companion. Things suddenly seemed simple. Youth is blessed. It's a risk you take, and even that risk is blessed. By some premonition I can't explain, I understood that God didn't want me to die without knowing something of this risk. Just enough for my sacrifice to be complete when it's time came."
What he doesn't know is that the man who gave him a ride was the Count's nephew and after driving him to Lille the nephew reveals to him who he is and says that his uncle thinks of him as a filthy good for nothing priest. The nephew says that the priest shouldn't care what his uncle thinks anyways and tells him that he is a soldier and a part of the foreign regiment. The nephew then compliments the priest and tells him that without the black robe, he could picture him being a soldier in the Foreign Regiment as well.
Finally seeing the doctor, the priest learns the truth of his condition as the doctor diagnoses him with stomach cancer which is a disease that rarely occurs to people his age. Staying at the hospital in Lille the priest decides to again start writing in his diary: "I think of my last few mornings this week, of the cock's crow and my peaceful window. How fresh and pure it all was!"
Near the end of the film the priest eventually leaves the hospital because there is not much more the doctors can do and decides to go see a former colleague and priest named Abbot Dufrety. Abbot has recently lapsed because of a illness and is now an apothecary who lives with a woman outside wedlock.When the priest arrives Abbot is surprised to see him and while Abbot starts talking about meeting a woman after getting out of the sanatorium and how she counts for nothing in his intellectual life, he notices the priest does not agree. When Abbot asks his friend if he is shocked by that the priest says, "But in your place, if I'd broken my ordination promises, I'd rather it had been for love of a woman, than for what you call your intellectual life."
Suddenly the priest starts to get weak as he slowly passes out. Abbot lays him down in his bed and runs to the pharmacy while his girlfriend arrives home and comforts him. When Abbot returns the priest takes Abbot's hand and says that he must talk with him. The very last journal the priest writes: “He's agreed to meet with the priest in Torcy. My old master." Torcy receives a letter from Abbot days later saying how Abbot found the priest unconscious on his apartment floor and when carried back to his bed he vomited up streams of blood.
While they waited for the doctor the priest regained consciousness but didn't speak. He motioned for his rosary and held it against his chest and after recovering some strength he asked for absolution and even smiled. He didn't seem to hear the absolution but a few moments later he laid his hands on Abbot and said very distinctively, if extremely slowly, these exact words: "What does it matter? All is grace." He died just then.
Diary of a Country Priest is a film about imprisonment. As he carries out the duties of his ministry, the priest tries to act as a link between his parish and the local population. But he ends up just another body, a dark blotch on the landscape, a mere spectator who quickly becomes transparent in the eyes of his flock. So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.
At the beginning of the film, Bresson executes two dissolves—from a page covered with writing in the priest’s diary, to the name plaque at the center of the village, to the young priest mopping his face. The private diary and the sweaty face symbolize two expressions of the same individual anguish, while the plaque is the sedentary object that can neither be removed nor erased. It is the shackle of reality, a worldly obstacle to heavenly exaltation. In the following shot, positioned behind the gates of the manor, has the priest actually seen the adulterous couple kissing? The cutting suggests that he senses their presence only as they walk away behind him. But having himself been seen, he now becomes a dangerous intruder. Henceforth, they will not rest until he is beaten down, until he understands that he is an unwelcome stranger in their territory. In the game of society, the rules are unchanging.
The priest of Ambricourt has only his duty and his parish to his name. Nonetheless, he’s an outcast without a history, a tainted product of postwar provincial France, formed from the blackest misery and the reddest wine. In this light, Diary of a Country Priest is the linchpin of Bresson’s oeuvre. It’s the last film in which he comes face to face with contemporary clichés. With its slightly decadent nobility, its “godless” doctor, and its collection of wretched bastard peasants, Diary of a Country Priest isn’t so far removed from the norms of then-contemporary French cinema. It reflects the standardized pitch-black rancidness that the critic-filmmakers of the soon-to-arrive New Wave would rail against. (In fact, the desperation of the Georges Bernanos novel isn’t so far removed from the universe of a Georges Simenon or Henri-Georges Clouzot.)
Faced with such worn-out, uninviting material, Bresson responded by creating his very first actor-model, Claude Laydu. In a way, Laydu is like a visitor from the future, from the cinema of Bresson soon to come, from A Man Escaped (1956) or Pickpocket (1959). He embodies the will to change as well as the longing for spiritual elevation, both so precious to Bresson. The film’s impact is built around the relationship between this “model,” still at the prototype stage, and the “actors” who make up the rest of cast, all of them branded with the very theatricality Bresson was trying to escape. For the role of the priest of Torcy, Bresson chose Dr. Adrien Borel, a psychiatrist (he initially refused, then changed his mind on the condition that he appear under the pseudonym “André Guibert”. If Borel’s role is unforgettable, it’s largely due to the violent contrast between his “old-fashioned” acting and Laydu’s feverish reticence.
Actually, the priest of Ambricourt can be read as a thinly veiled projection of Robert Bresson himself. Bresson’s battleground—in the contemporary political sense of the word—is his own conception of “cinematography,” which must be transcended right here and now, its feet stuck in the sludge of cinema but its head pointed toward the sky of a newfound rigor. Rather than an escape, Bresson wanted nothing less than a radical reform of the cinema’s perception of reality. Even before A Man Escaped, he positioned himself as a kind of resistance fighter who was unwilling to heed sensible, measured warnings, just as the priest cannot be satisfied with the commonsensical advice of the priest of Torcy. Rather than avoid the apparent obstacle of a naturalistic representation of the French countryside, Bresson shifts it from the image to the soundtrack. For the first time in French cinema, the less the environment is shown, the more it resonates. Standing in front of his presbytery, the priest watches a wagon go by. But the viewer only hears the sound of horses’ hooves, accompanied by an anonymous whistling. The social reality of the town engulfs the priest and his own universe. As the film goes on, it becomes a constant, murmuring stream, running through his day-to-day existence. Ubiquitous and constant, persistent and unchanging, it doesn’t need to be shown: its evocation through sound is enough. It’s a veritable prison.
Endlessly thrown out onto the roads and pathways of Ambricourt, encased in solitude, yet reduced to the state of a vagabond being continually chased away, the priest writes of his own failure as it eats away his body. Wine and ink have the same consoling function. He gets drunk on words and runs to the edge of the abyss. In order to emphasize the priest’s excessive solitude, Bresson often shows him in an in-between state—between inside and outside, standing before the French windows of the count’s manor or in the courtyards of the local farms. Like many future Bressonian characters, he has no place in the world, and runs the risk of an unlucky encounter. Which arrives in the person of Séraphita, a veritable monster encased in the body of a young girl. Séraphita is scary. Grown up too quickly and bursting with wicked intentions, she seems to have stepped right out of Marcel Carné/Jacques Prévert’s poetic-realist films, and anticipates the twins from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). She knows too much about too many things, in a manner that’s all too visible. The film stumbles a bit with this character, and yields to symbolism during her nocturnal conversion into a new St. Veronica, a scene that’s far too literal and obvious. Perhaps conscious of this small failure, Bresson would (re)make Séraphita over into Mouchette fifteen years later, in order to demonstrate that even this terrifying character could be incorporated into a completely new system of cinematographic representation that owed nothing to its predecessors.
In the “portrait of the artist as disturber of the peace” that is Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson was still shedding the contingencies of contemporary cinema. But the film left enough of a mark on its viewers to become a milestone in the slow process of the liberation of postwar French cinema. Long after Cahiers du cinéma published his famous article “A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema” (No. 31, January 1954), which devotes a lot of attention to screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost’s unproduced adaptation of Bernanos’ novel, only to denounce their alleged inanity and hail Bresson’s genius, François Truffaut would remember Diary of a Country Priest and the words of the priest of Ambricourt to Dufréty when he concluded the angry letter in which he severed all personal ties with Jean-Luc Godard: “If I was in your place and I’d broken the oaths of my ordination, I would prefer that it had been for the love of a woman rather than what you call your intellectual evolution.”
Diary of a Country Priest was closely based on the novel of the same name by Georges Bernanos. Two other French scriptwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost had wanted to make film adaptations of the novel. Bernanos rejected Aurenche's first draft, and by the time director Robert Bresson got around to the task, Bernanos had died. Bresson said he "would have taken more liberties" if Bernanos were still alive. The film is said to had considerable influences on Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, with Diary of a Country Priest being a personal favorite of Scorsese's.
The biggest controversy with Bresson is how he trains his actors because he actually doesn't train them at all. He was known for creating the 'actor-model' technique and considered his actors less as actors and more as dolls; with Claude Laydu being his very first actor-model . Like the expressionless look of the priest, Bresson forbids his actors to act or show much emotion in his films. He was known to shoot the same shot 10, 20, or even 50 times, until all acting was drained from the characters faces, and eventually the actors were simply performing the physical actions and speaking the words.
Bresson most famously didn't like to shoot character's faces as much as shooting the character's fragmentation of their body parts through his framing; for which he focused on legs, torsos and hands which give the film a more naturalistic power. A lot of people have criticised Bresson's style of acting in his films and said his films are filled with emotionless zombies, but I disagree. By simplifying the performance to just have them do the action and speak the words achieves a unique purity that make his films more powerful. Because of having actors not show much emotion, it makes us want to feel more about them, and we than have to decide for ourselves what these characters are thinking and feeling, which I believe leads to much stronger emotions for the audience because we are now forced to empathize.
Some feel that Bresson's Catholic upbringing and belief system is behind the thematic structure of most of his films, similar to Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Carl Dreyer. Robert Bresson's other masterpieces are Au Hasard Balthazar which tells the tragic story about a young farmers daughter, and a donkey passed from cruel master to cruel master and in which both of their fates parallel one another. Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the most spiritual films I have ever witnessed and is on my top ten films of all time. Pickpocket is about an isolated man who is a professional pickpocket thief, A Man Escaped is about a French Resistance activist who is imprisoned by the Nazis, Mouchette is about a young girl and her struggles with adolescent life, and his final masterpiece L' argent, is a story about the evils of money and greed.
The character's in most of Bresson's films are usually harsh and cruel and Diary of a Country Priest is no exception. Seraphita is a monstrous young student in his class who mocks the priest when first arriving, and even spreads rumors of him being a town drunkard; when the audience knows the priest barely even touches the bottle. The Count won't give in offering his barren land and his empty barn for the priest to build a youth club for the community. The Count is also openly having an affair with his govenerness Miss Louise and it's not really sure if the priest caught the two adulterer's kissing in the beginning of the film or not.
Even though the governess seems to be the only person to attend Mass, she seems to attend without any spiritual reasons and is their for other selfish needs. The priest eventually finds out the governess written him an unsigned letter threatening the priest to leave town; probably on the grounds of his standing in the way of her and the Count's affair. The daughter of the Count Chantel is a young girl full of bitterness and hate towards her mother and father and cruelly insults and threatens the priest; and yet the two of them seem to have some sort of sexual tension between one another. The Countess knows about her husband's affair with the governess but seems to not care because she emotionally cut off all her kindness and love after the death of her only son.
In the most powerful scene of the film the priest arrives by the Countess's manor and urges her to accept Christ and to let go of the bitterness of her deceased son, and to rid all of her coldness and hate. In a remarkable scene of exchanged dialogue between the two of them the Countess undergoes a miraculous spiritual rebirth accepting God back into her life and breaks down crying at the priests feet. And yet even that spiritual breakthrough between the both of them is twisted and lied about after the sudden death of the Countess. (Like several of Bresson's character's her fate is never explained.)
Doctor Delbende seems like a very wise local doctor who seems to have everything figured out and even tells the priest to "face up to it!" and learn to deal with life's problems; even though he has admitted to not believing in God. And yet his sudden suicide seems to be a shock on the priest and it effects him deeply, with him realizing that depression and doubt can occur to anybody even someone as wise and sure of themselves as the Doctor. The only friend the priest seems to have is the priest from Torcy who offers him practical advice and treats the young man like a son, and yet seems to be extreme within his Catholic beliefs.
Several of the shots in Diary of a Country Priest are large, bleak, empty farmlands with the composition of the priest always presented within the frame as smaller than life; making him look like a weak pathetic character in conflict with a much larger and threatening world that seems to greatly intimidate him and what he stands for. Even though the films story of a priest who is slowly dying of stomach cancer (we never hear the doctor's opinion, but instead learn about it through the writings of the priest's journal) and how he has lost his faith in God and in his work, it might seem depressing and bleak, and yet the ending is actually quite uplifting. Yes, the priest didn't get the chance to spiritually save any of the lost souls in the small town of Ambricort, but within the final moments of his death, the priest seems to have gained his faith back and receive his last absolution; even offering his friend consolation to change his life around and return to the priesthood. What I found interesting in Diary of a Country Priest is that the young priest only smiles once. The one time he smiles is when he is leaving the town of Ambricort and is offered a ride by a motorcyclist to the train station. When he climbs on the back of the bike you can finally see flashes of the young lively boy inside of him come out this repressed, sad and sick man who I believe is taking up way too much responsibility for someone at his young age. Even though Robert Bresson was an Agnostic, I don't know his personal spiritual feelings about the Catholic Church, but me being an Atheist and watching this film, I was deeply saddened by the young priest. Here is a young man who should have had his own life ahead of him to live recklessly, fall in love, make mistakes and learn from them, and experience the gift of growing up and the highs and lows of youth. A young man like that who is thrown into the priesthood and who is conformed to strict rules, regulations and is forced to repress his natural thoughts, feelings, opinions and emotions is in a form of imprisonment. At his young age he is still not mentally mature enough to be in the position of spiritually helping other people's personal issues when he himself is still growing, maturing and learning about his own doubts, fears, questions, flaws, and his own identity within himself. It's a persons personal choice to devote their life to God, and to not put their own selfish needs and desires before Him; but I believe that it is morally and psychically unhealthy to go through life and not be able to find a human partner to love and share your life with. The priesthood seems like such a lonely and sad existence and the quote that the young priest says near the end of the film to his colleague shows that even priests have the desire to want to be loved by another human being; and it makes me sad.
"If I was in your place and I'd broken the oaths of my ordination, I would prefer that it had been for the love of a woman rather than what you call your intellectual evolution."