Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Journal d'un curé de campagne (1951)

This is the second part of a two-part review of the novel and film Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) by Georges Bernanos and Robert Bresson respectively. An earlier post focused on the 1936 book by Bernanos. Today's is about the 1951 film, written and directed by Robert Bresson.

Bresson was born on September 25, 1901, at Bromont-Lamothe, Puy-de-Dôme, and educated at Lycée Lakanal à Sceaux, Paris. Before becoming a film director he was a painter and a photographer. During World War II, he spent over a year in a prisoner-of-war camp. He made thirteen feature-length films, often using non-professional or little known actors. In 1967, he made a film based on another Bernanos book, Mouchette. Bresson died in Paris on December 18, 1999.

Bresson's script for the film is for the most part quite faithful to the book. We see the Curé's diary and hear its contents in the voice of the Curé. Dialogue is used so sparingly that the viewer finds himself in a unique psychological and aesthetic space between a silent film and a talking picture. Music is used rarely but to good effect.

Bresson's fidelity to the novel makes visually and audibly present the various events in the Curé's Way of the Cross that were described in the review of Bernanos' book. As in the book, however, the allusions are subtle and one's recognition of them is belated. Critic André Bazin was aware of this aspect of the work and described it as liturgical.

The visuals are without exception exquisitely beautiful, in black and white. Much attention is given to the facial expressions, body language, and movements of Claude Laydu, who plays the Curé.

The casting and performances of the Count, the Countess, Louise, Chantal, Seraphita, and even the very minor characters are without exception flawless, as are the settings and camera work. A psychiatrist in real life plays the priest of Torcy and he is entirely believable. Marie-Monique Arkell is perfect as the Countess. The encounter between the Curé and the Countess where he fights for her soul could not be better.

It is said that Bresson would only cast a faithful Catholic for the role of the Curé and that Laydu lived with a group of young priests prior to the filming so he could acquire their gestures and movements. It is also said that Laydu fasted during the filming in order to lend credibility to the role. One wonders whether he also fasted for spiritual reasons. Toward the end of the film Laydu merges so completely with the character that one beholds a man who is as entirely spiritualized as one can be in this life. And, one feels a deep gratitude to Laydu for the sacrifices he made for the sake of the film.

In various reviews and the commentary, much nonsense is said about Bernanos, Bresson, and the film. Particularly annoying are those claiming that Bresson was a Jansenist heretic or an agnostic. Significantly, none of these claims include a direct statement by Bresson that he was either. A single viewing of the film is enough to conclude that no agnostic would -- or could -- have made it. Moreover, Bresson closes the film with the actual words used by Bernanos, "Tout est grâce". ("All is grace"). No Jansenist would make such a statement.

The Jansenist view of grace is a withholding one, where God metes out grace to a chosen few, overwhelming their free will, while leaving the vast majority of humanity unredeemed. The phrase "all is grace" was taken by Bernanos from the lips of the Little Flower, Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). One of the major reasons the Little Flower was so beloved during the first half of the twentieth century was that her view of grace was such an effective antidote for the residual poison of Jansenism. By adopting her language, Bernanos and Bresson clearly rejected the heresy of Jansenism. Those who claim otherwise should be ignored.

In her 1937 translation of Bernanos' book into English, Pamela Morris exchanged "Grace is everywhere" for "Tout est grâce". To say "grace is everywhere" is in keeping with scripture. "And where sin abounded, grace did more abound." (Romans 5:20.) Thus, Morris' statement is theologically correct. It is not, however, a direct translation of what Bernanos, Bresson, or the Little Flower actually said.

What did Bernanos, Bresson, and Little Flower mean by "all is grace"? Speaking concretely, all is definitely not grace. To make this statement with the intention that it be taken literally would be to promote the heresy of pantheism, i.e. "everything is God", but surely this was not the intention.

The key to Bernanos' and Bresson's use of the phrase is found in a striking moment in the film. The Curé is struggling for the Countess' soul. She refers to her husband's infidelities and then says, "There's nothing in my past to blush about." To this, the Curé replies, "Blessed is sin if it teaches us shame." (This is very similar to the portrayal of the event in the novel.) The Curé does not mean that the sin itself is a blessing but rather that it is a blessing if the sin brings about humility and repentance in the individual. This too is consistent with scripture, "And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints." (Romans 8:28.)

Thus, Bernanos' and Bresson's use of "tout est grâce" should be understood to mean that grace is always and everywhere present -- along with what is not grace -- even though one might not be able to perceive it. With spiritual maturation, one's vision is enlarged to see the presence of grace in past and current circumstances -- a vision that becomes complete for the Curé as he lies dying.

With each repeated viewing of Bresson's exquisite film, one's experience of it deepens; its meaning -- and Bernanos' -- penetrates farther into one's interiority. The riches of this beautiful story and film are seemingly inexhaustible.

The film is available in DVD format from the Criterion Collection and can be purchased from the usual outlets.

Ruysdael's "After the Rain", from the Web Gallery of Art. In the public domain.

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