DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST
My interests before seeing Robert Bresson’s classic 1950 film, Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, lay almost exclusively in the wickedness of the medieval church when seen as an institution governed by a corrupt hierarchy. There were, of course, many devout priests who administered to the ill and needy. Many priests were, no doubt, sent to villages to make an impression, where the inhabitants were far from God-fearing and where priests where unwanted and, indeed, mocked. The Diary of a Country Priest deals with this very issue, but in a 20th century village in northern France. This film thus makes an interesting comparison with Le Moine et la Sorcière, as in The Diary of a Country Priest our allegiance and sympathy is not with the lay community but the clergy.
Described as ‘striking, depressing, slow and austere, with little dialogue but considerable beauty’ (Walker, 2004: 236) and ‘one of the most influential films ever made’ (Parkinson, 2006: 330), the Priest of Ambricourt, played by Claude Laydu in his first lead role, is ‘utterly convincing … and the result is an almost spiritual experience’ (Parkinson, 2006: 330). However, this has little to do with faith or dogma, but ‘everything to do with Bresson’s unique ability to exteriorise an interior world’ (Milne, 2011: 270).
The storyline concerns itself with a lonely, young ascetic priest, who is dying, who is sent to his first parish, and the despair he experiences at his failure to save the souls of his flock. He is a simple man full of self-doubt, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, disliked and not trusted by those he is there to help:
“But what have I done wrong? What have they got against me?” the Priest of Ambricourt asks.
“That you are who you are” replies the Canon.
The Church’s position is given by The Priest of Ambricourt’s mentor, the Priest of Torcy, when he says:
“A true priest is never loved, remember that! The Church doesn’t care a whit whether you are loved, my son. Be respected, obeyed, keep order all day long …”
Yet although he is made fun of and is ignored or spoken harshly to, he does find some caring – the girl (who previously mocked him) attends to him when he collapses and the motorcyclist who gives him a ride to the train station and who says the two of them could have been friends.
Like Dreyer’s, The Passion of Joan of Arc, we feel an overwhelming empathy with the protagonist, for he stands for something more than the young village men who simply get the girls drunk for fun.
In some ways, The Passion of Joan of Arc is less painful (although, undoubtedly more traumatic), for when she dies we know she believes she is going straight into the hands of God, whereas when the Priest of Ambricourt passes away we are unsure about whether or not he believes he is going to heaven, as he struggles with his faith throughout the film (a little like Antonious Block in the Seventh Seal), which includes the desire to take a wife. The Priest states that ‘God is not a torturer’, yet he is tortured throughout the film. Certainly, one feels sympathy with Jean Tulard, in his Dictionary of Film, when he wrote: ‘No other actor deserves to go to heaven as much as Laydu’ (Bergan, 2011). Laydu died in 2011, aged eighty-four.
Although Bresson was required by the distributors to strip forty minutes off the film for release, it is ‘nonetheless a glorious example of the power that cinema can attain’ (Parkinson, 2006: 330).
Bergan, R. (2011) Claude Laydu Obituary (The Guardian, 7 August, 2011).
Milne, T. (2011). The Diary of a Country Priest. In Pym, J. (ed.) Time Out Film Guide (Time Out Guides, London).
Parkinson, D. (2006) The Diary of a Country Priest. In Kilmeny Fane-Saunders (ed.) Radio Times Guide to Films 2007 (BBC Worldwide, London).
Walker, J. (ed.) (2004) Halliwell’s Film, Video and DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, London).