Scorsese Screens - March 2021
In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film director and classic movie lover Martin Scorsese.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951) (March 15 at 2:00am ET)
I saw Robert Bresson’s adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novel Diary of a Country Priest for the first time in the mid-‘60s. Around that time, I was in the process of moving beyond the idea of Catholicism that I’d held as a child. This transition, sometimes painful, was felt by many of us who grew up in the Catholic faith. James Joyce dealt with it head on in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And for me it came during an extremely dramatic moment in the history of this country. Our presence in the Vietnam war was escalating, it had just been declared a “holy war” by the church, and many of us were feeling such confusion, doubt and sadness so often that they seemed to become a part of everyday reality. So, I vividly remember the sense of hope that Bresson’s film gave me when I saw it that first time.
Every frame of Diary of a Country Priest is permeated with a profound sadness. It’s felt in the cold, damp weather of northern France, the offhanded bitterness and poisonous cruelty of the characters and the plight of the new parish priest of Ambricourt (Claude Laydu) who is wasting away from stomach cancer as he tries to bring comfort to his parishioners. Everyone around the young priest is suffering, malevolent and punishing themselves and everyone around them. But in Bresson’s work, cruelty and hardship always frame the sudden arrival of grace, like a ray of light that cuts through pitch darkness. As Bresson himself put it in an interview with Paul Schrader (who was deeply affected by Bresson’s work), “I want to make people who see the film feel the presence of God in ordinary life.”
Diary of a Country Priest was Bresson’s first step away from conventional filmmaking and acting and toward a deeply personal approach in which every single element feels handmade. Laydu was a trained theatre actor, a member of the Renaud-Barrault company, but there is absolutely nothing theatrical about his acting. He inhabits and embodies his character so fully that you might fear for his life as you watch him on the screen. There’s one moment in the picture that’s rendered by Bresson and Laydu with such eloquence and simplicity. The priest is consoling one of the characters, and he tells her: “God is not a torturer. He just wants us to be merciful with ourselves.” That moment really opened something up for me. It led me to the realization that if we’re able to give ourselves the time and space to reflect on it, we’ll see that we’re the ones doing the torturing, so we’re the ones we have to be merciful with. The moment and the film that contained it affected me profoundly. Years later, I had the chance to meet Bresson in Paris, and I was able to tell him just how much his film meant to me.