’Diary of a Country Priest’ – Robert Bresson – (With actor Claude Laydu)
“I try to catch and to convey the idea that we have a soul
and that the soul is in contact with God.
That’s the first thing I want to get in my films.”
~ Robert Bresson.
Robert Bresson is a unique film maker in the history of cinema. He has developed a very personal way of filming that wholly tends towards one thing only: conveying the truth. This is achieved by means of the right use of cinema language. As the French master said in the newspaper ‘Libération’: “The true language of cinema is that which translates the invisible. I am trying to convey feelings rather than facts or actions. I am trying to substitute an internal movement for an external movement.” This is particularly well shown in his 1951 film ‘Diary of a Country Priest’, where Bresson, slowly, relentlessly, and above all with simplicity, is scanning the interior life in everything, in the dialogues, the lights, the camera movements, the acting. But this simplicity is here to serve an utter precision. The film is crafted. A skilful surgeon is here at work. And we make silence.
‘Diary of a Country Priest’ tells a simple story based on the novel of the same name by Georges Bernanos, published in 1936. A young priest arrives in his first rural parish where he and his faith will be met with misunderstandings and challenges, both from his parishioners and his declining health. The film opens with these simple lines in his diary: “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.” In the first scene, we see the young priest appearing behind the bars of a gate, signifying that we are about to see the story of an imprisonment. The film is the description of his total dedication to his duty, which will prove to be an ordeal. We are always in a prison, when we are locked in the belief in being somebody.
The simple, straightforward cuts, the acting delivered without affect, the simplicity of camera movements, all help to experience life in the film as a whole, a totality, and not from the standpoint of a hero, a point of view, a character dealing with conflicts and the outside world. The film delivers to you something that is already complete, bearing an intrinsic peace already formed. The plot becomes secondary. Just a story. Nothing at stake. I surprised myself feeling just good, happy, comfortable in the film, independently of the nature of what was taking place or not. There is something quietly entrancing in Robert Bresson’s films. How can a so simple story, where very little is happening, how can something so bare, so stark, so cold, so dark, vibrate so profoundly inside me, captivate me so wholly? This is the mystery of art. In the hands of a less gifted director, this could have turned into an ordeal. But in Bresson’s hands and vision, everything acquires a soft meaning and is a sweet home.
The actors are asked to recite more than play, with a monotonous voice, as if speaking to themselves. This works miracle on the viewer. You are freed from the burden of having to judge or respond to the acting. You repose, and in doing so, you are not inclined to make judgements as likes and dislikes, and feel in that process relieved of the sense of being a viewer, or a self. The film becomes the means of being simply, truly present. You are open to the stark, everyday life of the village, which Bresson often conveys through sounds. The sound of a horse cart’s wheels on pebbles, the sound of the church bells, the rattling of a rake, the creaking of a gate, a tramway passing in a street. There is ample use of dissolve effect between two takes. The alternance between the dialogues, and the voice off when the priest writes in his diary, becomes an elaborate dance, with one replacing the other harmoniously, sometimes almost overlapping it, playing at hide and seek.
‘Diary of a Country Priest’ – (Claude Laydu & Rachel Bérendt)
“I want to make things so concentrated and so unified
that the spectator feels as if he has seen one single moment.
I control all speech and gesture so as to produce
an object that is indivisible.”
~ Robert Bresson
The priest is caught between many little stories, running around to quench every incipient fires. The ‘little priest’, as he is sometimes called, must endure the complaints of his parishioners, particularly the ones to whom his dedication is experienced as a threat. Even the little girls to whom he is teaching catechism have turned into little monsters doing prank on him to have a good laugh at his own expense. He seems to attract hostility in spite of his quiet and mellow personality, and finds himself craving for kindness and a little compassion. Even the priest of Torcy, whose fatherly figure takes on the role of a mentor, is complaining about these young weak priests who don’t know how to be leaders: “Seminaries these days send us choirboys, young ragamuffins who think they’re working harder than anyone because they never manage to finish anything.”
This is how it is, when we try to bend reality to our own will. We are being mocked at. Reality will resist us, will even rise against us. And against that we will rise in return. By this I mean that our sense of being a separate self will be hurt and grow a victim, a prey to life’s cruel inclination. And when we try to convince other souls like us of a truth that we have not yet fully understood or realised, they will turn against us. For we know not what a life is, what it exactly comprises of. Life is not about controlling, orchestrating its separate parts into a whole that will satisfy us. Life is rather a coherent whole whose acceptance and contemplation will compel us to realise that all is already finely orchestrated, perfectly formed and incarnated. And in this we can rest; to this we can surrender. In that letting go, that letting be, life will acquire the finest possible clothing — one that will dress us in its perfect fabric. Not because of our will, or effort, or talent, or work. But because we have been raised to the level of its intricate and intrinsic perfection. This is the place where our actions are infused by the qualities of the self as pure being, and shaped accordingly, which is for the service of truth, beauty, and love.
There is a constant flow in the film, a mighty breath. The style is bald, but infinitely rich in feelings. This raw simplicity hide some complex intentions. There is a thrill that grows to infinite proportion, yet for no reason, everything seeming so downplayed, so insignificant. Our life is the same when we look at it with honesty. Nothing is really happening. So little is at stake, in spite of all our beliefs and affected grandiosity, our indulgence or connivance with our suffering, our problems. But to see the bare simplicity of life is to acquire a new dimension within. This is the thrill of life — this vision; this breath; the interior of the palace. This is our self. This self is truly the purpose and meaning of our life. This is what is at stake. This will kill all the drama in our life, where nothing will stand out as the story. Where would you find an agitated sea, when you are abiding in its unfathomable depth? All of life is in seeing this, rather than being caught up in endless desires and conflicts. If you don’t, be prepared for a rough crossing. All is in feeling this knowing that lies at the core of our being. Knowing is a cathedral of peace.
The priest’s feelings of utter solitude and hopelessness are about to break his faith apart. Then comes the moment when he has to deal with a local Count’s difficult family situation. Unable to act on the man’s intransigence, he is left with having a long and meaningful conversation with his wife, who is expressing her resentment at the loss of her young son who died some years ago. She is angry and bitter. But the priest shows her that it is precisely now, at the time of anger, at the time when she is loathing god, that she can feel god within, that she is in a conversation with god. “God is love itself. If you would love, don’t place yourself beyond love’s reach”, does he tell her, feeling that the Countess’ vulnerability could be the point of entry into feeling her true self within, which is her son’s too.
This honesty — this giving in to the darkest, most desperate part of herself — is when the dialogue between the priest and this woman becomes a surrendering in love. This confrontation is at the core of the movie. This is a confrontation between open hearts. For this is where true meeting takes place, when we are crushed, when heart opens, lays everything bare, all the suchness of life, the plain truth of being, the giving of our self. “You must resign yourself. Open your heart. […] You can’t bargain with God. You must yield to Him unconditionally.” That surrendering, that opening, is the gate to our own undefeatable presence as god, and the true meeting place where she can realise her son’s presence as her own. Her gratitude for this meeting comes later, in the form of a letter: “I didn’t believe resignation was possible, and in fact it is not resignation that has come over me. I am not resigned — I am happy. I desire nothing.” This is a changing point in the priest’s life, when he truly experiences the power of his mission in god. He writes in his diary: “What wonder, that one can give what one doesn’t possess! Oh, miracle of our empty hands!”
’Diary of a Country Priest’ – Robert Bresson – (Actor Claude Laydu)
“Cinema is a means of discovery.
You have to give the impression that the film
is a breakthrough into the unknown. There’s no mistake.”
~ Robert Bresson
A lot in our life is about grief, about loss. This whole journey is about loss. Life is a constant processing of loss. The failures, the incapacities, the abandoned dreams, all that eludes us… these we have to let go, to offer. Otherwise these thoughts crystallise as beliefs and strengthen our sense of self, our angers, covering our grief as a result. Grief is the valuable gem, what truly matters, not something to run away from or cover up. Grief is a gift from love. If we take grief in, accept it, merge with it, we will be blessed and dressed by it. It will flower as love, or beauty, or understanding. This flower is our self — our true being. The one that never lacks, that suffices to itself, that is in peace with its own sweet presence. The priest’s ordeal is precisely his discovery of the presence of this larger Self within his own beaten self.
I think the beauty of the film is that we are left in the dark. We progress as in life, not knowing what it’s about. Life is like that too. We may plan, project, organise, but in the last analysis, we are only walking in the night, uncertain of our successes, as of our failures. We are only waiting for somebody, or something that will come to put the light on, that will illuminate us at last. That’s our devil, this waiting, this expecting, this projecting outside of ourself, in objects, in people, the resolution of our life conundrum. By doing so, we are prevented to see that the only thing that matters, the only physician that can heal our puzzled mind, is truly ourself, this deep presence within where all is being already acted. Does the actor suffer, who takes on a role, plays a part that is already acted, however difficult the circumstances of the character are? Where does the mastering of his art — which is the art of living — come from, but from his deep, unaffected, un-tormentable peace? No amount of effort is necessary to live. If you exert one, think about it. Think of the planets, of the weather. Think of the tempestuous winds over a reckless sea. Do they act out of effort? Do they need encouragement? Strife? If there is any strife in our life, we don’t live. We are faking it.
To the priest’s surprise, the Countess dies the next morning, and rumours are spread that his behaviour was responsible for it. The priest is disconcerted: “What have I done wrong? What have they got against me?” To which his mentor priest answers: “People don’t hate your simplicity — they shield themselves from it. It’s like a flame that burns them.” It seems now that the little priest is turning the other cheek, that he’s having a cross to bear, that he decides to live his own necessary ‘Way of the Cross’, which he calls the ‘Holy Agony’. He surrenders to it all, to everything that overwhelms him, all the reproaches, the misunderstandings, the doubts, all that needs to be fully exposed, to be transformed into one thing only: a shower of grace. This is shown by the sudden benevolence of the priest of Torcy bowing to him and asking for his blessing. This is shown by the little girl Seraphita — his torturer in catechism — and her sudden gestures of kindness, maturity, and understanding.
From an outside, lazy observer, the hero’s life seems to be a succession of failures, nothing more than a miserable existence. But in his own being, there is an understanding, revelations upon revelations, the exercise of untold humility, and as many successive falls than there are rises. There are fears, doubts, bewilderments, but there are also epiphanies, grace, and infinite gratitude. We know not the battles at play in anybody’s life. Judgements will always fall short. Isn’t the way of the cross this moment when we have to renounce, accept our defeat: we’re not going to have it our way, we’re not going to resolve it. This is coming now — our asking for forgiveness; our becoming like a little child; our melting into god’s loving arms. This is the ultimate surrender of what is left of the story, of the endless battles, of ‘me’, into a presence that has no shape, no identity. This is the return to the womb of life, where we belong of all eternity — where nothing can be lost, or lacked. This is where life becomes a playground for god’s aims, which are love, beauty, freedom, peace, happiness. This is how the priest can say, at the moment of death, looking back at his life, “What does it matter? All is grace.”
Film by Robert Bresson (1901-1999)
Text by Alain Joly
‘Diary of a Country Priest’, 1951 – Directed by Robert Bresson
Based on the novel ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’, by Georges Bernanos (1936)
Cinematography by Léonce-Henri Burel – Music by Jean-Jacques Grünenwald
(With actors Claude Laydu, Adrien Borel, Rachel Bérendt, Nicole Ladmiral…)
Robert Bresson (1901-1999) was a French film director whose contribution to cinema as an art has been recognised the world over. He directed 13 feature films during the course of his 50 years long career, such as ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956), ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ (1966), ‘Mouchette’ (1967), ‘Les Anges du Péché’, and ‘L’Argent’ (1983). ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ won numerous awards, including the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and is Andrei Tarkovsky’s favourite movie. The French film director Jean-Luc Godard once wrote of Bresson: “He is the French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” He died at his home in Paris in 1999, at the venerable age of 98.
The film ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ can be seen here on YouTube (without subtitles)…
Listen to this interview of Robert Bresson on YouTube…
– ‘Notes on the Cinematograph’ – by Robert Bresson – (New York Review Books Classics)
– ‘Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943-1983’ – by Robert Bresson – (New York Review Books)
– ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’ – by Georges Bernanos – (Da Capo Press)
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