Written by: John White on February 20th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: France, 1950
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyre, Andre Guilbert, Rachel Barendt, Nicole Maurey, Nicole Ladmiral
DVD released: February 3, 2004
Approximate running time: 115 mins
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Rating: Not Rated
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $39.99
A young priest arrives in the country village of Ambricourt. His idealism and passion are not matched by the response of the villagers and he struggles to make any impact even with the well attended Sunday School he teaches. Troubled by a constant fatigue and stomach pain he ignores the suggestions of an older priest and an old retired doctor to relax and look after himself. He hits upon the idea of asking the local Count to support his plans to build the community and unfortunately finds himself at the centre of the Count’s family problems. Disowned by the Count and with his health failing, rumours spread that he is an alcoholic.
This was the beginning of what would become Robert Bresson’s trademark style seen in films like A Man Escaped. This somewhat dark tale is told largely unaffected by cinematic tricks like montage and clever editing. No actor is expected to emote or to perform, they are simply asked to be. The tale is adapted from a prize winning novel by Georges Bernanos and is simply a tale of what the older priest calls “the night undoes the work of the day”. The young idealistic priest comes to desperately embrace the world whilst accepting his own mortality and lack of impact.
The pace is very slow and some will find the lack of drama disconcerting. This is not though the point of Bresson’s films. He tries to capture the truth in the worlds he presents by showing the commonplace and the real as they happen rather than through hyperbole or manipulation. Less courageous film-makers would attempt to show the priest achieving a moral victory of some sort, but Bresson is content to show us a somewhat nihilist reality where the “mission” of the Priest means the loss of his greater life. This can be read as sacrifice or disappointment and that depends on the viewer really. The Priest almost becomes a Christ surrogate as his well meaning interventions lead to greater and greater suffering for himself as his parishioners repudiate him.
Diary of a Country Priest is a masterpiece. A film full of philosophy, religion and above all mortality
Criterion have presented the film in Academy ratio which is what was originally intended. The restored print shows some scratches and a small softness but the image is quite breathtaking for a 56 year old piece. There is minimal grain apparent and the contrast levels are well balanced so that the excellent stark photography is done justice. The French mono track has also been restored and it is good but unsurprisingly lacking in dimension or punch. The English subtitles are excellent.
The extras include an essay on the film in the liner notes, a trailer and a commentary on the film by Peter Cowie.
Criterion have done a marvellous job on a film which is an all-time classic. If you like a bit of art in your cinema or the subject matter of films like Bergman’s faith trilogy then this is a must own for you.
For more information about Diary of a Country Priest and other titles released by Criterion visit their website.