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In Ambricourt, an idealistic young Priest (Claude Laydu) arrives to be the local parish priest. He attempts to live a Christ-like life, but his actions are misunderstood. The community of the small town does not accept him, and although having a serious disease in the stomach, the inexperienced and frail priest tries to help the dwellers, and has a situation with the wealthy family of the location.Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
*Diary of a Country Priest* is a nearly perfect film. Made in 1950, this film benefits from Bresson being at the height of his powers. As he aged, the slow, measured, static style became more and more mannered, or more and more intolerable, shall we say. But here he doesn't go overboard: the mood is portentous rather than pretentious. And in any case, it's not as slow as you may think: there are probably hundreds of cuts in the film (this ain't no Carl Th. Dreyer movie). Along those lines, Bresson's method of adaptation -- which is to distill the ESSENCE of the chosen work -- is stringently economical and pared to the bone. In other words, the thing doesn't simply dawdle along. Based on a 1930's novel by a right-wing Euro novelist, *Diary* details the sad experiences of a young priest with health problems who is assigned to a new parish. The villagers treat the young man with hostility and downright scorn. Sensing and resenting the new priest's obvious holiness (everybody hates a saint), they ridicule him, shut him out of their confidences, send threatening anonymous notes ("I feel sorry for you, but GET OUT") . . . to all of which our hero responds with a sort of confused empathy. Meanwhile, Bresson uses a striking narrative device: we see the priest writing in his diary, while VOICING OVER what he's writing, and then there's a cut to a scene which SHOWS the action the priest has just been writing (and narrating) about. This complex, layered style proves to be more than a fair trade-off for the paucity of actual narrative incidents. We're invited to ponder an event's significance -- a lucky thing, because the action is quite often so psychologically complex that we need room to breathe, to think things over. Don't presume to form an opinion of *Diary* until you've seen it at least twice. Sounds like homework, I know, but so does *King Lear*. Great art IS homework.
Perhaps the film's true value is its delineation of just how stagnant and unpleasant little towns can be. Again Bresson is inventive: rather than simply show us the putrid little village, the director instead opts for an oblique approach, inviting us to IMAGINE just how putrid the village actually is, usually by heightening off-screen sound effects. Quite often, we hear unpleasant things like motorcycles backfiring, rakes running over asphalt, crows screeching, mean-spirited giggling outside a window, iron gates slamming shut, and so on.
And finally, it must be said that it's surprising how avowed agnostic directors make the most persuasive religious movies. In my view, this film and Dreyer's *Ordet* remain the greatest films about Christianity in the history of cinema (the conversion scene in the middle of *Diary* might prompt you to go to church next Sunday). Anyway, *Diary of a Country Priest* is an unassailable, influential masterpiece that's a MUST-OWN for the true cineaste, and a possible education in art for everybody else. Get the new Criterion edition, watch it twice, and listen to Peter Cowie's commentary. I assure you that it won't be a waste of your time.
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