Mean-spirited antagonists undermine otherwise thoughtful tale of modern-day Jesus figure
*** This review contains spoilers ***
Throughout the years, the 'passion story' of Jesus has always remained the bedrock of the Catholic church. Although respected, the story of the suffering of a man who lived 2,000 years ago no longer has the same impact it once did in earlier times. In our own time, the average 'believer' looks to the narratives of film for spiritual enlightenment. That's why the Catholic church of today has placed great importance on creating a list of great movies that reflect their values. 'Diary of a Country List' however is not on the Vatican Top 45. That's because director Robert Bresson's modern day Jesus figure, the Priest of Ambricourt, becomes a martyr after being rejected by the Church establishment.
Diary of a Country Priest is based on a novel written by George Bernanos in the early 30s. The film was made in 1950 but the pre-World War II setting is retained from the novel. The Priest (who is never named in the film) is an intense young man played by Claude Laydu (in his first film role). The Priest doesn't fit in at all in the village of Ambricourt. He actually suffers from what appears to be colitis (later diagnosed as stomach cancer) and subsists mainly on bread and wine. The rumor starts going around in the Village that he's an alcoholic. The village children don't understand his sophisticated catechisms except for one?Seraphita--who initially impresses the Priest with her knowledge of church doctrine. But when he asks her why she takes her studies so seriously, Seraphita mocks him by answering that he has beautiful eyes. Her schoolmates have all been listening to their conversation at the door to the rectory and burst out laughing at her retort.
The Priest obviously isn't very happy by the town's indifferent bordering on hostile reaction to his ministry but he trudges on. His mentor, the Priest of Torcy, is a much more outgoing and practical man who advises him to take control by establishing some kind of 'order' in dealing with his parishioners. Unfortunately, that's just not the Young Priest's style. He's much more blunt and often says exactly what's on his mind. The Priest's faith is tested early on when a physician he consulted for his stomach troubles ends up committing suicide.
The core of the narrative involves the Priest's relationship with a local Count and Countess who live on a nearby estate. The Priest hopes to convince the Count to donate money and some unused land for a youth center; the Count at first is receptive and promises to consider the Priest's proposal. Unfortunately, the Priest cannot ignore the fact that the Count is having an affair with the governess at the estate. To make matters worse, the Count's daughter, Chantal, is extremely angry with her father over his affair with the governess and threatens to run away (or even worse, commit suicide). The Priest dissuades the young girl from taking any rash action but refuses to be tactful with the Count, pointing out to him that his daughter is extremely troubled. The Count pegs the Priest as a meddler and makes it clear that his comments aren't welcome.
Even worse is the Priest's counseling sessions with the Countess who has been grieving for years over the death of her young son. At first the Countess makes it clear that she's lost all faith in God but the determined Priest manages to get her to look on the bright side once again. Ironically, the Countess drops dead hours after his last counseling session with her and the Count and the rest of the townspeople blame the Priest for 'exciting' the Countess and perhaps hastening (or even causing) her death. As a result, the priest is now 'persona non grata' in the town. He meets with the Priest of Torcy who patronizes him by insisting that his 'alcoholism' stems from (an early version of) fetal alcohol syndrome. He also advises the Priest not to meet with Chantal as he describes her as a 'demon' but the Priest insists he must minister to all?even those who are obviously lost.
In some respects, Bresson's updated passion tale echoes the original source material (i.e. The New Testament). Jesus's suffering is blamed on the Jews in the New Testament but here the Priest is cast off by cold and unfeeling townspeople supported by the punitive clergy. This appears to be the primary weakness of Bresson's story. Except for the mature Seraphita who comforts the Priest after he collapses due to abdominal pains and Chantal's cousin, the suave Olivier, who offers up a relaxing motorcycle ride as the Priest journeys to a neighboring town to obtain a consult with a physician, the bulk of the characters are all quite mean-spirited. It's the old stab-in-the-back mentality and Bresson is not immune to employing this device when serving up his newly minted Jesus figure.
There's more martyrdom in store for our hapless Priest. Sure enough, not only is he cast out by his parishioners but must endure the final crushing diagnosis: stomach cancer. The ordeal of fire is a modern one?instead of crucifixion on a cross, the Priest endures the modern 'crucifixion' of dying an agonizing death from cancer. The final image is one of the cross and like Jesus, the Priest maintains his faith despite all the suffering.
Bresson curiously has been described as an 'agnostic' but I think that's a misnomer. Rather, he accepts the Christian faith but views himself as outside the establishment. Diary of a Country Priest is worth watching a number of times, especially in terms of the gripping cinematography (reminiscent of films from the silent era) as well as the superb use of off-screen audio. Film scholar Peter Cowie's commentary is valuable as he compares the film to the novel. I disagree with his evaluation however, that the film is a masterpiece. The Diary has its thoughtful moments but in the end it's more propaganda than art.