Saturday, September 11, 2010

Appreciation: Diary of a Country Priest

I've just come off a two-hour (almost) engagement with Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest.  I'd read the book a few years ago but I'm not sure I ever heard of the movie until I ran into it in someone's appreciation of Bresson.  I'd say it is well worth the effort; it's  interestingly shot, with a craftsmanlike use of voice-over (the :Diary").  He's made great use of his non-color color, washing out all the blacks and whites into a kind of spooky pallet of grey.  There's enough gloom here to remind you of Bergman, although you'd have to say that Bresson and Bergman are each gloomy in their own way.

It's a coming of age movie: young priest on his first assignment, and probably the best thing to say about it is that there is not a whiff of Bing Crosby or Barry Fitzgerald.   It's an earnest and carefully-observed effort to understand loneliness and spiritual challenge, in the company of a physical body that harbors a will of its own.  It's respectful and compassionate and devoid of cheap tricks,  but I'm not persuaded that Claude Laydu had the chops for  part that requires so much face time with the camera.

I suspect the problem starts with the book itself: George Bernaonos' original  is at least as bleak as the movie without the consolation of those breathtaking grey skies.  As such, it is a truthful picture of the difficulties and disappointments in the believer's life: a chastening reminder of how hard it is to do any good at all.  An additional difficulty is that for a book/movie about a priesthood, there is a strangely limited take on the job of comforting the afflicted.  Laydu has essentially one "client;"  she lost a son and is inconsolable.  But she is a countess with plenty of means for consolation apart from this poor unseasoned youth.  Flip side: for a community that seems so poor, there are scarcely any poor people.  What, exactly, does the priest do all day?

Yet it still commands respect, perhaps not so much for what it does, but for what it refuses to do--rhe number of occasions on which the director refuses to allow either his character or his audience any manufactured consolation.   Maybe you could run it as a training film for the Peace Corps, especially if you want to make sure you drive away all the waverers before the cost the sponsors a lot of money.

Perhaps you could pair it with another I ran across a few months ago--I gather this too is a movie though I have only read the novel. I'm thinking of Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August , another coming-of-age story about a young man cast adrift with a mandate to do good in a millieu he doesn't really understand.  Unlike Bernanos' priest, Chatterjee's young man spends most of his time smoking dope and masturbating.  I understand it was a huge hit among young urbans in India.

No comments: