Salvation, damnation, the extent of God’s grace – Robert Bresson makes such recondite concerns agonizingly emotional in his 1951 landmark about a sickly young priest (Claude Laydu) trying to negotiate his first parish assignment. Consider it emo theology.
With his shock of black hair, pale skin and dark eyes, Laydu is a sorrowful figure, something like a holy Edward Scissorhands. Already shaky in his own faith (he can’t pray), the priest is utterly adrift in the real world, where his parishioners are either scornful or skeptical of him and morality is seen as an inconvenience. This sense of personal despair and isolation is only heightened by Bresson’s trademark austerity: a sparse mise en scene, precise soundtrack, impassive actors.
And yet the priest persists, despite his worsening health and disinterested flock. Finally, one day, hope breaks in. Among his parishioners is a bitter countess who has nursed a hatred for God for years, ever since the death of her young son. The two engage in a lengthy theological bout, during which the priest is on the ropes more often than the countess. As they continue to talk, though, her anger slowly begins to melt, until she finds herself holding something she hasn’t felt for years: a sense of peace.
The scene is key because it represents what the priest – and the movie – have been longing for: a moment when the distance between God and man is made moot. (Notably, this doesn’t happen with the countess because of any technique employed by the priest; he later refers to the miracle of their conversation as a “lost secret.”)
Diary of a Country Priest is about the unexpected – and little understood – intermingling of the earthly and the divine. This is why even during the film’s most intense spiritual discussions, Bresson includes an element on the soundtrack – the raking of leaves, the bark of a dog – that anchors us to the temporal, the here and now. It’s also why one of the few moments of elation the priest experiences comes not during a prayer, but during an impromptu ride on the back of a motorcycle. Diary of a Country Priest is about what happens when theology and daily living crash head on, and all we can do is lie there, dazed, waiting for God to help us up.