Because of its religious material, an inheritance from the autobiographical novel by Béatrix Beck on which it is based, Jean-Pierre Melville, an atheist, disparaged one of his most beautiful films, Léon Morin, prêtre—like his first film, Le silence de la mer (1947), set in a small town during the German occupation.
The central character is Barny (Emmanuèlle Riva, superb), a young war widow with a daughter by a Jewish father. Barny is also a communist and an atheist, but whatever she “is” she is also remarkably unformed behind her settled masks. At work, she is half-attracted to an androgynous female co-worker before striking up a platonic relationship with the titular handsome young priest, beautifully played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. But what precisely draws her to this boy who becomes her tutor? They talk faith (his, necessarily), and she feels compelled by powerful forces of conversion. But is Barny the best analyst of her own motives? It turns out that Léon’s moral strength derives as much from his anti-fascist activities as a member of the underground Resistance. It is resonant rather than arbitrary that this film is more pencil-gray than black and white.
Barny’s shopping around for a definitive personality suggests a self-making Frankenstein monster; but her predicament suggests the extent to which war and enemy invasion have put lives on hold, especially robbing the young of opportunities for normal mental and emotional growth. Who knows what of life that Léon’s dangerous patriotic activity is holding him back from.
But even the Occupation of France cannot keep life from bubbling up here and there. Melville releases one of cinema’s finest erotic charges when Léon, the object of her stirred desire, literally brushes past Barny as she is seated in church.
Our own hearts nearly stop.
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