Watching The Diary of a Country Priest: Bresson's film adaptation
Since I've just finished a series of articles on Bernanos's novel The Diary of a Country Priest, I’d like to say something about the famous film adaptation by Robert Bresson, which deserves its reputation as one of the greatest Catholic films ever made. The film hews very closely to the plot of the novel, so rather than give a synopsis I will simply make some observations about what makes Bresson’s treatment so effective and moving.
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Bresson had a unique and anti-conventional way of directing actors, conceiving of them rather as “models”:
HUMAN MODELS: Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.) 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.
...The to-and-fro of the character in front of his nature forces the public to look for talent on his face, instead of the enigma peculiar to each living creature.
Thus, throughout the film, the face of Claude Laydu (who plays the protagonist, the Curé d’Ambricourt) rarely changes expression – he doesn't “make faces” like most actors – and yet is deeply and mysteriously expressive nonetheless. We somehow detect an interior movement even when the face is still. (Laydu also has relatively little onscreen dialogue; we hear him narrating d'Ambricourt's diary more than we see him speaking.)
Indeed, Laydu’s face carries the film. The camera focuses on it intensely, often to the exclusion of his surroundings and sometimes to that of the people with whom he interacts. This is especially true of one of the final scenes, in which the Curé d’Ambricourt visits an old seminary friend who has broken his ordination vows. The fellow babbles on and on, but we hardly see him; instead, the camera stays on d’Ambricourt’s face as he listens to his friend’s self-serving rationalizations.
In an earlier scene, an older priest says that he thinks of vocation as a matter of finding one’s spiritual place in the Gospels, if one’s soul could travel back 2,000 years. Hearing this, d’Ambricourt suddenly begins to weep, as we hear his diary:
The truth is that I always return to the olive grove. It was a very familiar and natural movement for my soul. I’d never realized it until that moment. Suddenly, Our Lord had shown me the grace and revealed through my old master’s lips that nothing would tear me from my chosen place in eternity. I was a prisoner of the Holy Agony.
The focus on Laydu’s face as his character hears the malicious or blasphemous or uncaring words of others lets us see his agony, as though he is taking on the weight of their sins along with our Lord in Gethsemane. Even his physical suffering, a mysterious ailment that causes intense stomach pain, seems to become one with his spiritual anguish.
Unfortunately, the Criterion edition of The Diary of a Country Priest is out of print, and I know of no other English-subtitled, North American region DVD available for purchase. However, the entire film has been uploaded for streaming at gloria.tv. (Note: gloria.tv is basically a Catholic version of YouTube with user-submitted content. We cannot give it a blanket recommendation because it is not particularly well-moderated, and includes some radical traditionalist material that should not be allowed on a faithful Catholic site.)
That is one way to watch, but I will say that the video quality of that upload leaves something to be desired. Web-savvy readers can easily find a higher-quality version for streaming or download elsewhere, and since the film is not available for legitimate purchase at this time, recourse to otherwise less “legit” sources is ethically irreproachable. But I will leave it to those who so desire to butter their bread for themselves. Browse safely!
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