Film: Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest)
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.
There are films that present the world as a place that I do not really know or care to live in. Such a film is Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest). I’ve said this about other films as well, and I’ll say it about this one—in the main, nothing good happens to anyone in this film. Bresson’s film shows the world as a bleak place in which faith is difficult and painful, and the road to such faith is paved with pain and suffering.
The priest (Claude Laydu) of our title is not given a name. He is a young priest, just given his first parish in Ambricourt, a small village in northern France. Once there, he confronts complacency and apathy toward himself and his religion at best and outright hostility at worst. He is plagued by health problems, specifically a weak stomach and an inability to digest much more than bread and wine, and the hostility from the local people isn’t helping him.
This hostility comes from everywhere, too. The priest runs a catechism class for the local young girls. Only one of them appears to be paying attention, and he gives her additional praise. But as it turns out, this is all an elaborate prank played by the girls to embarrass the priest. He visits the local manor of the area’s count (Jean Riveyre) and countess (Rachel Berendt) because he is concerned about their daughter, Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral). He ends up spending a great deal of time with the countess, though, who has lost a son.
The two discuss the nature of life and death, and her own inability to return to the church because it feels to her like God has taken the boy away. It appears that the priest gives her a certain amount of courage and strength, and is thus surprised when he discovers that she has died in the night. He is further surprised when it turns out that young Chantal has eavesdropped on the conversation and is now blaming the priest for her mother’s death.
Through all of this, the priest keeps a journal of the events of his life and the minor indignities and torments he suffers at the hands of the people of Ambricourt. We are privy to his thoughts and feelings throughout, and we understand the suffering of his life. A great deal of his suffering comes from his stomach problem, but the majority of his issue is that he is going through a significant crisis of faith. He finds he can no longer pray despite the depth of his faith.
Journal d’un Cure de Campagne is extremely stripped down to almost nothing in terms of visuals and sound. While initially this threw me, I came to appreciate it quite a bit. It’s extremely sparse in terms of what it shows, and music appears only at specific moments in the film, which has the effect of calling attention to itself. In many ways, this is quite beautiful. The film feels minimalist in many respects.
However (and I’m guessing you could tell there was going to be a “however” here), this minimalism seems to infect everything on the screen including Claude Laydu as the priest. He is so completely detached from everything at all times, in many instances he may as well be a wax sculpture or a piece of the furniture. A great deal of the time, all he does in the film is listen to people talk and swoon because of the pain in his stomach (which incidentally turns out to be quite a bit more serious than a little mal d’tummy). This evidently is the effect Bresson was going for, but it’s extremely off-putting. The priest character is detached, but he’s also completely wooden. His entire life, or most of it, is lived internally, and we see this only in bits and pieces in the journal. Otherwise, he just closes his eyes and looks to be suffering divine pain most of the time.
That more than anything is the problem I have with this film. Well, that and the fact that no horrible fate seems horrible enough to inflict on the guy. His ordeal is so completely and terribly awful that I can’t even really dislike the guy as much as his stiffness, formality, and inability to answer a question without a pained five-second pause make me want to.
I know this film is influential in many ways and that Scorsese cites it as one of the main influences on Taxi Driver. I even see the influence. I simply didn’t enjoy it very much.
Why to watch Journal d’un Cure de Campagne: It’s stripped to the essential, beautiful basics.
Why not to watch: Misery piled on top of suffering with a side order of maliciousness.