Diary of a Country Priest

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Diary of a Country Priest
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

A newly ordained young priest (Claude Laydu) is assigned to a rural French village. But, between his constant ill health and the blatant hostility of his set-in-their-ways parishioners, the new curate of Ambricourt turns to his journal to tell his worries and woes in the “Diary of a Country Priest.”

Robin:
This is a more accessible film from director/writer Robert Bresson, in my limited experience with his works, and it exemplifies his dour temperament as a story teller. The young priest is not greeted, upon his arrival, with a welcome by his new flock. Instead, they ostracize him and keep him at arms length. His only counsel is an elderly priest in a nearby parish who admonishes him for his poor eating (the young cleric subsists on wine-soaked bread and fruit only) and advises him on dealing with the surly town folk, particularly Le Comte (Jean Riveyre), a wealthy aristocrat.

The priest’s diary provides insight into the physical and mental suffering he lives with day by day, his dealings with his resistant parishioners and his fears over his declining health. This is a somber tome that shows no humor in the young priest’s life – the only time he smiles is when a local gives him a ride on his motorcycle, and that is a melancholy moment tinged with sadness.

Still, the priest and his heavenly and earthly problems are compelling to watch, even though little happens. Most of the time, we watch the priest as his journeys by foot and by bicycle to visit various members of his congregation. One parishioner, La Comtesse (Rachel Berendt), has lost her treasured son and is steeped in grief. The priest tries to comfort her and does, but she dies soon after and her death is questioned. But all of the trials the priest faces with his flock become minor when he receives bad news.

“Diary…” is a tragic story and non-actor Claude Laydu, with pained looks and copious voice over narration, gives an effective, sympathetic performance. The film leaves me with a sad, empty feeling inside so I guess Robert Bresson did his job. I give it a B.

Laura:
A young cleric in ill health arrives in the village of Ambricourt and immediately encounters problems with his parishioners.  An old man accuses him of gouging the poor when a burial fee is requested, the smartest member of his Communion class, Séraphita Dumontel (Martine Lemaire), sets him up as a laughing stock and the daughter of the all powerful Count (Jean Riveyre, "Touchez Pas au Grisbi"), Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), comes to him with tales of adultery just as he receives an anonymous letter telling him to get out.  These tales and more grace the "Diary of a Country Priest."

Writer/director Robert Bresson adapts his first Georges Bernanos novel (the second, 1967's "Mouchette," plays almost like a mirror image) for his moving paean to spirituality and grace achieved despite great obstacles. The young priest of Ambricourt (the mournfully expressive Claude Laydu) is clearly a symbol of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane - at one point, the character even refers to being among the olive trees - alone and struggling.  Yet Bresson makes his journey not only a great mystery, but oddly uplifting.

The maliciousness of the villagers is odd (the film evokes and possibly inspired Haneke's "The White Ribbon"), but the priest receives counsel from his practical elder, the Priest of Torcy (Andre Guibert), and that man's good friend Dr. Delbende (Balpetre, "Le Corbeau"), an atheist (the man of God and the nonbeliever seem forerunners of "Mouchette's" gamekeeper and poacher).  The count is initially receptive to the young man's ideas, but retreats when he tries to broach Chantal's troubles (the young girl hates her parents and accuses her father of cheating with her governess, Miss Louise (Nicole Maurey, "Day of the Triffids")).  The priest's ill health is noted by all (his diet - only bread and wine like the Sacraments) and he must take leave when he first meets the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell), but a second visit is pivotal.  The countess does not care about her husband's affair as she essentially stopped living when her youngest child, a son, died.  Through a suspenseful philosophical debate, the priest delivers the Countess back to god, giving her a peace that is denied him.  Chantal overhears at the window and when her mother dies in the night, tells everyone that the priest's words were more than she could take.  He struggles to make his way home and, like Christ on his way to the Mount of Olives, falls and is tended to by Séraphita, like Mary Magdalene.  He leaves the village to consult with a doctor and ends his days in the home of a friend, now a lapsed priest.

The film is stunningly photographed in black and white by Léonce-Henri Burel ("A Man Escaped," "Pickpocket"), who accentuates the harsh landscape, the priest pushing his bicycle the mud or walking on a horizon taunted by barren, twisted trees.  The soulful Laydu with his saucer eyes and shock of hair is the epitome of sacrifice, yet he, like the later Mouchette, smiles once, when he's offered a lift on a motorbike leaving town.    The diary of the title enforces narrative voice over which is never overbearing.  Laydu simply invites us into the priest's contemplations.

"Diary of a Country Priest" is a profound work.  Bresson finds majesty in simplicity and his sounds and images attain a spirituality of their own.

A
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