Robert Bresson’s third feature, Diary of a Country Priest, is a perfect companion piece to his 1967 masterpiece, Au Hasard Balthazar. Both are steeped in overt religious overtones and both primarily focus on the suffering and torment of their protagonists. While both deal with symbolism, it’s Diary of a Country Priest that directly delves into the world of religious suffering.
The priest (Claude Laydu) of the small town of Ambricourt, finds that his youth and inexperience result in the wider community holding a low opinion of him. Even the children and his own peers torment him. While these external threats do trouble his thoughts, it’s his inner turmoil that troubles him the most, his inability to find spiritual peace and to truly pray.
This inner-conflict is symbolically manifested in his diet which consists of bread and wine, evoking the sacraments of communion. While this diet is constructed as a necessity of his stomach condition, it places him in a perpetual state of communion, constantly placing himself in the turmoil of the suffering of Christ leading up to his crucifixion.
The suffering of this young priest becomes a Christ-like image. Bresson throughout his career directed actors into certain poses and tilts of the head that evoked classic religious paintings and imagery and this is most prominently displayed in Diary of a Country Priest. The slight tilt towards the heavens or the subtle gaze downward in humble prayer becomes two of the most prominent recurring acts in the film.
Of course, film presents its own visual inclinations and instead of embracing the spectacle which film lends itself so well to, Bresson goes the opposite direction, stripping the film of a lot of its ornateness in order to make simple symbols and images in the smallest of movements. It is not detail from the macro level down, but detail in the smallest of movements that Bresson uses film to underline and highlight.
The lighting remains mostly the same, save for the few nighttime shots. The camera maintains eye level perspective and camera movement is often little and mostly negligible. The focus is in the acts, in the style of how things are presented and where the camera chooses to gaze.
And while these images and symbols are an essential part of what makes the film so compelling, the film is supported by some substantial and intriguing theological debates that struggle over issues of suffering and pain in the world. When the priest must face the mother who lost her young son, he must address one of the most difficult and contested questions of any religion that touts a good, loving god: the question of human suffering.
Diary of a Country Priest is a beautiful illustration and examination of this question. While Bresson would go onto explore the same question with his more masterful Au Hasard Balthazar, Diary of a Country Priest is still an enrapturing and fascinating film to watch. It deals with the text in a more direct way, which makes it a better entry point into Bresson for those looking to finally catch up with one of the masters of cinema.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing