“All is Grace…”

A French Poster for Diary of a Country Priest (1950)
How often do you see a movie that won’t leave you?

The minimalist outlines of Journal d’un curé de campagne or Diary of
a Country Priest
(1951) are deceptively simple, telling the story of a man whose life appears to be a failure through his diaries. Yet the power of the movie seems to grow after seeing it and it is hard to shake its spell. In a medium that mostly glorifies and relishes the lushly beautiful as it documents our material existence on film, this movie pares down the merely visual, leaving every concentrated physical gesture such as opening one’s eyes, the feeling the sensation of the wind on a motorbike, the sound of a pen scratching on paper, of leaves being raked and the depth of feeling conveyed in a seemingly blank expression to remind us that so much of everyday life is filled with a not so prosaic significance. To feel this film’s full power, it should probably be viewed more than once. So few films can successfully document the inner life of a person, it is
startling to encounter one that achieves this elusive quality so fully.

A very young French priest, (ClaudeLaydu), is newly arrived in Ambricourt, a rural community beset by provincial pettiness and human failings. Taken from the 1936 Georges Bernanos novel of the same name, French Director Robert Bresson‘s fourth film may be his most
compelling. While the filmmaker publicly claimed to be a skeptic and not
a practicing Catholic, he has nevertheless crafted an abiding reminder
that, despite all the obvious faults of priests, laity, organized religion and society in general, there is something nagging inside the human animal that longs for transcendence. Whether or not one accepts that premise is part of your journey and mine.
A page of the priest's journal in A Diary of a Country Priest
You don’t have to be a Catholic to appreciate this movie, (though familiarity with the Church helps), but a Zen-like patience might be real asset, since it moves at its own unique rhythm and pace that is different from almost any other movie. Unlike the standard “mobile holy card” approach of Hollywood studios to the depiction of religious experience under the production code, Diary of a Country Priest offers no miracles from God or the special effects department, not even a beatific Linda Darnell as Our Lady of Lourdes. Instead the movie focuses on the troubled body and spirit of a nameless Curé d’Ambricourt as he wrestles with his own imperfections while trying to understand his proud, wounded, mean-spirited and occasionally inexplicably hostile parishioners.
Journal writing itself, as ritualistic and familiar to the central
character as saying Mass, offers the lonely man his one outlet for
expression despite, as he says, for the fact that, as he asks in the
narration at the beginning of the film, “what harm can there be in
writing about a life without mystery?”

Using unknown and non-professional actors for the most part, Bresson
once said that he preferred to work with the untutored because the
“thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide
from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.” Part
of what makes this film very moving was the apparent lack of expression
on the gentle, poetic face of Claude Laydu. Claude Laydu as the haunted-looking priestThe less outer expression the actor playing the priest engages in while writing, walking or saying Mass, the more
expressive he, and the other actors, especially Rachel Bérendt and
Nicole Ladmiral, appear to become
throughout the film. Laydu, a slight man with a somber but not unpleasant demeanor, brings several believable qualities to his character. He truly looks like an ascetic priest who, frail and weak from a chronic undiagnosed stomach ailment, believes that his meager diet of bread, sugar and wine sharpens his mind and spirit.

The sense of separation between the world and the priest is established almost immediately, with several shots depicting the man within gates or through the grid of a window frame within a room or seen from outside. The look of the film also heightens the character’s solitude, A barrier that underline part of Bresson's themesetting his
character alone in a misty country landscape where it seems to be an
eternal November. The flat, watery look of this film, giving it a bleak,
softly dream-like feel, is, according to the director, the result of a
“happy accident” by an embarrassed cinematographer,
Léonce-Henri Burel. Having worked with innovative directors such as Abel Gance and Maurice Tourneur, Burel was appalled to find that his
early test footage for Bresson‘s film “wasn’t diffused, [and] was out of focus” as a result of having lens diffusers incorrectly attached to the equipment. The director, however, insisted that the luminosity of the effect produced was perfect to convey the sense of dislocation and otherworldliness he wanted to achieve in the movie.

As an occasionally insightful older and earthier priest (Armand Guibert)
counsels the young Curé, he should forget about trying to reach those around him spiritually, but be pragmatic, “keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow.” Despite this advice, the young man, neglecting his appearance and his health, persists in reaching out to his suspicious neighbors, visiting the homes
of all of his parishioners, from the poorest to the most privileged.
The lonely priest in the watery look achieved by the<br /> cinematographer by mistakeThe fact is that his distracted air and otherworldliness inspires acute dislike in most of those he tries to help. He’s met with a hostility that borders on the comic
at moments. Without knowing why, he is rejected by almost everyone, largely because he makes them uncomfortable. This dislike is illustrated in a series of encounters, one with a peeved churchgoer miffed that he has to pay anything for a funeral service, another with the haughty Count (Jean Riveyre) who discourages his plans to build a social center or youngsters who mock him while they receive First Communion instruction because he “has beautiful eyes.” Almost no one treats him with any respect or simple kindness. The young priest’s social gaffes, his misunderstanding of most of the nuances of life’s inevitable compromises and his lack of social skills, however, do not prevent him from having an impact on others. Approaching the grief-stricken Countess (Rachel Bérendt credited here as
Marie-Monique Arkell) while seeking her support for his social center, he unearths her spiritual living death, as she mourns the loss of her
beloved son at an early age and her husband dallies with their neglected
daughter’s governess under her nose. Cutting through her anger with
his insights, the Curé enables the woman to find the peace that
she never knew all the years thatClaude Laydu as the Priest & Nicole Ladmiral as Chantal she hated God for the pain of her son’s death. Indeed, the priest has
never experienced the sense of peace that she feels, and is struck by his own inadequacy as he finds that he can help her. The next morning, still affected deeply by the change in the woman’s state during his
visit, the young priest learns that the woman has died in her sleep that night, after writing him a letter of thanks. More in wonder than self-pity, the priest realizes that “Her long ordeal is ended. Mine
begins.”

The priest is soon aware that his presence is under scrutiny from his superiors and from the community, due in part to the misinterpretation of his visit with her mother by Chantal but also, despite his constant feeling of inadequacy, spiritually and administratively, one outstanding and growing quality–his clear, unbearable to us mere motals–simple saintliness. The character of Chantal, who is one of the few individuals who sees the power within this priest, is the unloved adolescent daughter of the Count and Countess is played by Nicole Ladmiral in a trance-like
rage that is both provocative and disturbing. Angry that the priest has
brought her mother peace rather than confronting her with her
governess’ affair with her father, she is deeply alienated from her
father, yet happy to manipulate him once her mother is dead. The girl
has claimed at one point that she “would like to go anywhere, try
anything.” While her adventurous spirit might seem liberated, there
is a dark and twisted element to this character, who is, at one point,
described by one character as a devil. Like most of the women in the
film, she may appear to have the sharp edge of a disappointed spirit,
trapped and warped by her experiences, but is surprisingly vulnerable
and dangerous to herself and others beneath the pain. Like the priest,
her character misinterprets much of the world around her, but is without
his sustaining spirit.The soul-searching priest in a characteristically scrupulous frame<br /> of mind Sadly, the actress Nicole Ladmiral,
(seen above with Claude Laydu), would only appear in one film after this, and committed suicide at age 28.

The priest’s isolation deepens as his reputation is disparaged, until he
leaves the backwater community for the larger city of Lilles, ostensibly to visit a doctor to see why his stomach troubles him so much. On his long walk to the rail station, he is approached by a young French
Legionnaire on leave on a motorcycle, who, offering him a ride, and an
easygoing, quick friendship, explains that he knows who he is by
reputation. On the back of the bike, feeling the wind in his face, and
experiencing physical freedom and his own youth during a brief respite
from his loneliness, feels that God has allowed him this moment of
exhilaration and a lightness of spirit for a reason.

*Mild Spoiler Below * *Mild Spoiler Below *

Soon learning that he is seriously ill, the Curé seeks out an old
fellow classmate from the seminary in Lilles who has left the
priesthood. The last moments of the film, though no more exalted in tone
than the rest of the film grow in their spare power as life’s
cruelty consumes the priest, who, despite the world around him, is
finally liberated from his confinement. As he dies, the narration quotes
from the simple words that are found written in his journal, (quoting
St. Therese of Lisieux): “All is grace.”

Having read Bernanos‘ novel as a teenager, Robert Bresson (1901-1999)I
can’t imagine an author having his work translated to film with more skill than in Bresson‘s deeply moving adaptation.
Many people have compared Robert Bresson‘s films to those of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman
in their themes and style, though I
find Bresson closest in tone to Bergman.
Up to now, I’ve only seen this Bresson
film and the re-imagined Arthurian legend, Lancelot du Lac (1974), ( that is said to have inspired Monty Python and the Holy Grail). I look forward to rediscovering, among others,
Pickpocket(1959) and Mouchette (1967),
which I’ve seen parts of over the years, (it would also be great if TCM could schedule his movies occasionally) . Lastly, one time when the filmmaker was asked if people understood him and his films, Robert Bresson replied that rather “than understand him, he’d prefer that people feel a film before understanding it.” I’m sure that my understanding of all the thought provoking ideas on screen is imperfect, but the feel of this film has stayed with me for weeks since seeing it. I hope that you will post your insights on this movie as well.

4 Responses “All is Grace…”
Posted By Jeff (Atlanta) : June 7, 2008 4:57 pm

I put off seeing this film for years because I thought it would be an academic exercise. You can imagine my surprise when I found it to be not dull and cerebral but a riveting cinematic experience that was also very moving. It’s an easily accessible film and probably the best place to begin for a Bresson novice. And if you like this then I suggest you more on to the more austere but equally absorbing A MAN ESCAPED.

Posted By Jeff (Atlanta) : June 7, 2008 4:57 pm

I put off seeing this film for years because I thought it would be an academic exercise. You can imagine my surprise when I found it to be not dull and cerebral but a riveting cinematic experience that was also very moving. It’s an easily accessible film and probably the best place to begin for a Bresson novice. And if you like this then I suggest you more on to the more austere but equally absorbing A MAN ESCAPED.

Posted By YancySkancy : June 12, 2008 7:43 pm

Though I had seen several Bresson films, I finally caught up with this one about 3 years ago via the Criterion DVD. A beautiful film, both to look at and think about, and almost unbearably moving by the end. I greatly enjoyed your post, which contained lots of info I hadn’t heard before.

Nicole Ladmiral’s real-life fate is indeed sad, especially considering her character’s determination to live a life of sin.

Posted By YancySkancy : June 12, 2008 7:43 pm

Though I had seen several Bresson films, I finally caught up with this one about 3 years ago via the Criterion DVD. A beautiful film, both to look at and think about, and almost unbearably moving by the end. I greatly enjoyed your post, which contained lots of info I hadn’t heard before.

Nicole Ladmiral’s real-life fate is indeed sad, especially considering her character’s determination to live a life of sin.

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