French filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999) is now widely considered one of cinema's singular geniuses — an artist in complete control of his tools, on a personal quest to render a profound vision of the world — but it took the critical establishment decades to appreciate him. Irate boos accompanied his 1983 acceptance of an award at Cannes (a moment you can savor on YouTube), and older cinephiles still recall the days when Bresson's idiosyncratic films were routinely ignored by the art-house circuit in favor of more fashionable titles by Bergman, Fellini or Truffaut.
The tide turned in 1998, when Cinematheque Ontario's James Quandt coordinated an international retrospective of Bresson's complete oeuvre with newly commissioned prints. The perception that the filmmaker's work was all esoteric, mannered minimalism fell to a new wave of enthusiasm for Bresson's finely tuned perceptions, evocative rhythms and uncompromising focus. Quandt's accompanying 600-page monograph of essays and interviews, many of them translated into English for the first time, was one of the decade's best film books; a revised edition (more than 750 pages) is due any day now.
LACMA was the Los Angeles home for the 1998 tour, so it's fitting that Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — Bresson's third feature and in many ways his first major work — returns to the museum this weekend, via a 60th-anniversary print with new, tighter subtitles. Based on Georges Bernanos' novel, this tale of an inexperienced and ailing priest who feels tossed aside by his parishioners and by God is an immersive portrait of the dark night of a soul. The film doesn't rely on affection for Catholicism for its power — one reason it remains emotionally and spiritually vital even in an age when Christian politicians blame the poor rather than serve them, and priest sex-abuse scandals continue to haunt the headlines.
Bresson spoke of his own faith (and disillusionment with the post–Vatican II church) well into his 80s, but his metaphysical musings were always framed by intellectual honesty, great sympathy for despair and a sensitivity to the plight of youth in a materialistic world — characteristics already evident in Diary of a Country Priest.
The film's sickly protagonist (Claude Laydu) is first glimpsed wiping sweat from his face in a brilliant montage that isolates him from an embracing couple disturbed by his presence. The film's chilly sense of aloneness is partly due to its subdued, guarded performances but also owes much to the surprisingly lush cinematography. A richness of texture pervades the images, which in good 35 mm prints achieve a striking “wet” look from a lens diffuser that blurs physical edges, decreases lighting contrasts and lends a ghostly aura to the rural, muddy locations.
Diary also highlights Bresson's method of building his soundtracks piece by piece, surrounding the priest in an offscreen aural environment that increases his solitude: Cars are heard rushing past the town sign; peppy whistling and a village dance occur in the distance; footsteps come and (most often) go.
Bresson once wrote of the “ejaculatory force of the eye”; here, the priest so often gazes outside the frame in personal reverie that much of the film is built on a sense of presence through absence, a contradiction that haunts the priest as well as the viewer. “I got up with the impression, the certainty, that someone was calling me,” the priest says. “Yet I knew no one would be there.”
Largely structured around not just the priest's diary but the writing of his diary, the film draws the viewer into the priest's consciousness by foregrounding the activity of auto-confession in multiple ways — internal monologue, the physical act of inscription, the reading of the text — creating a fascinating echo chamber of sensation and interpretation in which the drama unfolds. It's a bold, revelatory example of first-person cinema.
Diary of a Country Priest also is emblematic of Ian Birnie's LACMA programming, which makes its arrival bittersweet in light of the museum's recent announcement that Birnie is leaving his post to make room for a reinvention of the program under the auspices of Film Independent. One can only hope such prime examples of world cinema will remain on LACMA's calendar, but hope, as the country priest knows only too well, can often be futile.
DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST | April 22-24 | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org