Sunday, August 2, 2009

Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson, 1951)

‘Diary’ is both a clear break from the conventions of mainstream French cinema and the work of a director in transition. Made in 1951, Bresson’s third film displays many of the characteristics that we’ve come to associate with the auteur, including a preference for “models” instead of actors, a plot without any conventional dramatic rhythms, and revealing the effect before the cause. It’s also a paradoxically touching film that ascetically avoids most of the emotionally manipulative techniques cinema typically employs.

The film, based on the celebrated George Bernanos novel of the same name, follows the trials of a young, sickly Catholic priest attempting to take charge of his first parish. Two attempts at adaptation had already been rejected by the author before Bresson: the first, by the popular screenwriters Jean Auraenche and Pierre Bost, had grossly dramatized several key scenes in the film, even altering the novel’s ending; the second attempt, penned by Pere Bruckberger, had transposed the historical setting to that of occupied France, shifting the focus from the tediously spiritual to the politically sensational. By the time Bresson was asked to make it, Bernanos had died.

Both the novel and the film focus on the spiritual life of the priest through his diary. Bresson had stated, “In my eyes, what was striking was the notebook of the diary, in which, through the curé’s pen, an external world becomes an interior world and takes on a spiritual coloration.” Throughout the film, we watch the priest’s hand write in his diary while his voiceover speaks what he has just written, anticipating and often spilling over into the scenes that follow. Most filmmakers would have rejected this approach as boringly redundant, but in Bresson’s hands, the doubling of image and sound intensifies and reinforces the action while illuminating the hidden dimensions of the medium. This deliberately constructed approach stems from Bresson’s own dictum, “Your film – let people feel the soul and heart there, but let it be made like a work of hands.”

Though many critics have lauded ‘Diary’ as one of the most successful adaptations of a novel ever made, Bresson’s real feat was creating a film faithful to the book while simultaneously pressing his own stamp onto every single scene. And while his first two films feel more like the works of a genius frustrated by an industry hostile to artistic originality, ‘Diary’ exudes an aura of discovery. Bresson had abandoned the studios and stages to film in the countryside, and had chosen Claude Laydu, an aspiring Swiss actor just starting out in acting school, to play the lead in his film. And though he filled out much of the remaining cast with professional actors, he tightly controlled their performances, speech, and movements, leading several to bitterly complain that he wouldn’t allow them to exhibit the “expressiveness” they had learned on the stage. Unlike his later films, however, Bresson gave great freedom to his cinematographer, yielding a more conventional mix of medium and long-range shots, closeups, and even tracking shots. We're left with a greater sense of spatial and inter-character relationships than in his later films, and this, coupled with a lamentably generic score, may serve as a stepping stone into Bresson's world for any newcomers to the auteur.

Last Word:
‘Diary’ was a seminal moment for film; fresh and unexpected, it expanded the medium’s horizons and
irrevocably hurtled Bresson down his brilliant, tortured career.

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