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In World War II, the widow Barny sees the Italian soldiers arriving in occupied Saint Bernard while walking to her job. Barny lives with her daughter and works correcting tests and feels a great attraction toward her boss Sabine. When the Germans arrive, Barny sends her half-Jewish daughter to live in a farm in the countryside and finds that Sabine's brother has been arrested and sent to a concentration camp. The atheist Barny decides to baptize her daughter to protect her and chooses priest Léon Morin to discuss with him themes related to religion and Catholicism and Léon lends books to her. Barny converts to the Catholicism and becomes closer to Léon, feeling an unrequited desire for him. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Jean Pierre Melville made many great films in his career - Bob La Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge, L'armee des Ombres, Le Samourai... etc. Melville was widely revered for putting the french back into film noir. His love of American crime drama was the dramatic basis for his films, while the work of the great European auteurs, such as Bresson, formed the artistic direction. His 1961 Leon Morin, Pretre, is then something of an exception. If films like Le Cercle Rouge or Le Doulous were a combination of American and European style, Leon Morin is all European.
Set in a town occupied at first by Italians, then Germans during WWII, Barny (Emanuelle Riva) is a widowed mother and communist. One day she walks into a church looking to belittle a priest. She chooses Father Leon Morin (Belmondo), because his name sounds less bourgeois. She goes into the confessional and begins her attack. The response by the young priest however takes her by surprise. He has wise and rational responses to her every claim. The two begin conversing regularly, the priest giving her books to read about religion and faith. The young priests rationality appeals to Barny, and she eventually undergoes a conversion, not because she wants to, but because she feels she has no other choice.
While the two converse in dogmatic banter, that is not only enlightening but interesting and entertaining, life in an occupied town goes on. Barny works at the local school in the office. Her daughter of a now dead Jew is cared for by farmers outside of town, where German soldiers train in the field. The young girl is befriended by a German who cares for her and gives her gifts. A co-worker collaborates with the Germans, but yet remains a friend to Barny. Another coworker Barny claims to be in love with, although it becomes apparent that she is in love with Father Morin, even before a friend points out that he is handsome and she claims that this was the first time she's noticed. The film plays out conversationally, with the plot revolving around ideas and emotion rather than events. It's a smart and thoughtful film, not so much concerned about where its going, just how its getting there. While the film is obviously one of faith, it is not one of traditional dogma. The young priest is so forgiving, so empathetic, that he asserts that of course one does not need to be Catholic to be saved, so long as they live by the laws of the wider church - kindness, generosity, humanity. He exists for the sake of others. During the occupation he houses anyone who needs a place to sleep, without asking questions, even names.
Characteristic of Melville, he uses interesting editing techniques and cinematography. Consider the first encounter between Barny and Morin: at times the camera looks straight on, making it appear as if they're speaking face to face, then cuts to side angle shots which show the caging of the confessional to obscure the faces. The point? I'm not totally sure, but nevertheless the effect is intriguing.
Equally compelling as Melville's direction is the performance of Belmondo. Known for his crime roles, most iconically in Godard's Breathless, he gives here a totally different kind of performance. For my money, its also one of his best. He's a bit of an unexpected choice, but he's the right choice, and he inhabits this role like its an old pair of pants.
Leon Morin, Pretre, is a surprising film. Surprising in its creation by Melville, in its acting by Belmondo, in its portrayal of life in an occupied town, and in its sheer intelligence and humility. It's also a wonderful and heartfelt film.
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