We tend to think in boxes. Materialism is one thing; spirituality, quite another. Yet in the cinema of Robert Bresson, materialism yields a store of spirituality.
From a story by Leo Tolstoi, “The Forged Note,” Bresson’s final film is titled L’argent—that is, Money. A schoolboy uses a counterfeit 500-franc note at a shop whose owners just as knowingly pass it on to a young laborer who is servicing them with an oil delivery. It is he who, using the phony note at a restaurant, is tried criminally; the charges are dismissed, but this boy, too proud to reclaim his job, descends a chute into crime, including murder, for which he never seemed destined. He loses wife, toddler, home, himself—all the upshot of that note whose forgery he never guessed. One might say that the bill was passed from hand to hand, but Bresson shows the transactions otherwise. The bill instead passes from hand to hand while finding at last its home. Money has a life of its own here, controlling everyone and everything in society, contested only by the free will that the boy, in the grip of need, fails to summon. However, the film will end with his redemption, by which time Bresson will have dismantled the fragile barrier between providence and individual, between apparent universal direction and the messy groping and stumbles issuing from the mind and spirit of this accidental criminal.
Bresson typically isolates and amplifies sounds to emphasize materiality: footsteps; objects being set down on a table; ringing cash register; doors opening and closing; screeching mopeds. It is an impersonal world in which humans impassively disadvantage fellow humans—a world seemingly without mystery, out of which Bresson precisely sculpts the dusky, illimitable mystery of the course of a human soul.
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