Director: Robert Bresson
Starring: Claude Laydu
It would be a great irony that one of the greatest considered religious films in international cinema history would come from a filmmaker that was agnostic. French director Robert Bresson’s 1951 feature Diary of a Country Priest is a quiet, unassuming film that shares a tale of an existential crisis of a young man determined to serve his believe duty in a community that does nothing, but hinder him. The picture is slow and methodical, delivering an internal struggle of a man troubled at every turn both psychologically and physically. With its simple, subtle cinematic style equaled by the similar simple performance Bresson would coax out of his debuting star, Claude Laydu, the film becomes more spellbinding with its ability to create empathy where you may not expect.
Diary of a Country Priest is a French drama about a young priest newly assigned to his first parish in a small, rural community in the face of unaccepting parishioners and failing health. An unnamed frail youthful priest (Claude Laydu) finds a new home at his first parish in a northern French town of Ambricourt. Of ill health and malnourished, living mostly on poor rations of bread and wine, the priest finds the locals take a dim view at the boyish, quiet new leader of the parish in a community that already appears to spurn religious practices. Children mock him, while the adults share a near distain of what he stands for, while unheralded rumors are spread of him in a town that does not appear interested in religion. Questioning his faith in God, people, and himself, finding he finds his only solace writing his thoughts in his diary and spending a little time with a fellow older priest of a neighboring community with a more jaded mindset. His health continues to worsen, finally seeing a doctor and and learning he is stricken with stomach cancer. In the face of death, the troubled priest sees the positives in a cruel world and absolves his faith knowing he served it all in grace, that it may have done some good in the world.
Not a film for the casual movie watcher, the feature is a quiet, unassuming work with a tale about a man’s religious existentially crisis whose deep faith and a lack of understanding is tested psychologically along with his own frail nature. A spiritual journey rooted in the core value of faith over devout theology and church practices, the picture’s story has the ability to find a common ground with many who do not share similar dogma with its main character. Subtly executed by a new actor on the French scene, Claude Laydu delivers a performance that so visually expresses the inner strife that it almost does not need the narration his character nearly exclusively communicates in throughout the picture. With nothing groundbreaking in terms of filmmaking or writing the feature is a masterpiece of subtlety, a near perfect mix of meaningful writing, direction, and performance that comes together to share a human story that speaks beyond anything religious.
Adapted from the 1936 George Bernanos novel, writer-director Robert Bresson worked the story for the visual medium by focusing on the humanity of the strife. Despite obviously being about a priest, a man of staunch Catholic faith, Bresson stripped away the overly religious tone that could have spoken more to those that grew up in the faith to allow it to be more relatable to a greater audience.
An internal struggle of a man stricken with issues of the physical, psychological, and faith, Bresson cuts out any extravagance in the production of his film. Shot in the still often used black and white medium, the story feels grittier, unpolished, and tangible than a more vibrant color feature. With the lack of blues and reds under Bresson’s direction we still feel the cold of the priest’s surrounding, yet the warmth of his soul.
Lacking is use of any complicated camerawork. For the bulk of the picture, it is simply static shots with some humble, slow panning where what little blocking calls for it. The most complicated camerawork comes when tracking the priest riding his bicycle with an obvious rig following Laydu as he pedals. In fact, it is not until when the priest is offered a ride with a motorcyclist that we experience the most action filled, yet still meek shot of the movie as the camera rides beside him capturing the only smile he delivers in the whole picture enjoying the exhilaration of the wind whipping through his hair. Otherwise, the entire picture is shot very modestly, with minimal dialogue and a focus on narration of the priest’s mind and his musings in his diary.
This marked a period in Bresson’s cinematic creativity where he began to utilize less polished performers, many amateurs or actors not known in film. Bresson had an idea that the art of acting merely got in the way of his moviemaking, suggesting that actors were simply models for him to use and pose to get the images he wished for his camera. Several takes working and reworking the subtlety of a performance would pare down the natural tendency to play up a actor’s want to create action into a final presentation, making even the smallest movement speak paragraphs in the final product.
In his debuting role the 23 year-old actor Belgium born actor Claude Laydu delved into the role by spending a great deal of time with many young priests, studying them, their actions, and re-entering into the world of faith he once shared with them. However, for Bresson he used Laydu, as the actor would refer to it, as an artist used clay. Laydu’s natural tendency and demeanor, which is far larger and more playful as seen him his later work in film and television, was honed down to the performance we experience here in the young priest. Portraying his mentor/ fatherly figure in the Priest of Torcy was performed by Adrien Borel (credited as Andre Guibert), a real-life psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who Bresson used for his manner of speaking to people that created a casual connection with others. Most remaining players in the supporting cast were no name performers that either never were known for their work in the picture or would only years later gather together a career.
Diary of a Country Priest found financial success upon release in France, but even more so found critical success on the international markets. French critics/journalists awarded the feature the best French film of the year. However, most notable the film was one of the most awarded pictures at 1951’s Venice International Film Festival, taking home four of its major prizes, and guiding director Robert Bresson on the path of international acclaim. For generations Diary of a Country Priest would be considered one of the finest French films of all time, and perhaps Bresson’s and Laydu’s greatest work of their careers. Generations of filmmakers have studied and praised the film, influencing many of the great auteurs in the years to come.