Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne is, like Mouchette (1966), from Bernanos. It, too, is about human pain and suffering. His fourth film inaugurated Bresson’s use of non-professional actors to help achieve an anti-dramatic stylization. Bresson is after the essence, not a photographic copy, of human behavior—much as he pursues the essence of objects.
Claude Laydu is wonderful as the unnamed young priest who arrives in Ambricourt to assume parish duties and never fits in. He keeps a diary, whose entries we hear as voiceover, in an attempt to solidify the accuracy of his observations and sense of things; but he is almost always mistaken. The discrepancy between reality and our interpretation of things plays out in his experience, which is both distinctive and representative of our own.
Bresson’s style is often described as spare and minimalist. Be prepared, therefore, for a gorgeous film; Bresson’s Diary consists of his courageous first steps toward what would become his purer, more essential style, although already its materialistic details yield a store of spirituality.
It is impossible to resolve this brilliant film’s ambiguities—and this is deliberate on Bresson’s part. How much that we see, correlative to the experience that the priest records in his diary, is close to accuracy, exaggeration or wide of reality? (Simultaneously, the hostility he encounters from parishioners seems unlikely and utterly convincingly provincial!) It is left for us to ponder whether the priest’s stomach cancer is a projection of the crossroads of his self-pity and attraction to martyrdom.
Even this boy’s death is ambiguous. The final, long-held shot of a cross: what does it mean? The boy’s acceptance into heaven, or a perpetual barrier to his entrance? Is his earthly suffering still too much for heaven to bear?*
* I have just written this in a letter to a friend:
I love Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest for its refusal to make fun of its young protagonist, whose voiceover reveals he has little or no understanding of either himself or others—which in 1950 turned the whole convention of voiceover narration inside out and upside down. And yet, despite the fact that he misinterprets so much, this boy draws such tenderness from Bresson, who is twice his age, making this one of cinema’s greatest instances of cross-generational generosity. Bresson’s warm feelings for the young priest are totally unsentimental; after all, Bresson’s method exposes each instance of the boy’s denseness. But because of this warmth of feeling on Bresson’s part instead of condemning the boy we look at ourselves and wonder: am I also, at times, as self-unaware and as unaware of others as he is? What do I misperceive and “get wrong”? If Bresson had treated the boy coldly, or ridiculed him, we might have said, “Oh, I’m not like that!” But Bresson’s embrace of the boy won’t let us off the hook, even if at times he gluts on the arrogance of youth. Bresson sees to it that his protagonist never becomes the scapegoat for our own shortsightedness and shortcomings. Bresson embraces the boy’s humanity, ours and his own. This film is such a gift, such a tonic.