#236. Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Strange that this should be the most evocative depiction of writing (I guess of journaling in particular) to’ve appeared on the List so far. Maybe one of the best on-screen portraits of a writer and of writing itself I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if it’s particularly cinematic, these lengthy shots of a notebook being filled, in longhand, with the young priest’s ruminations, but the language is gorgeous, exciting, and I think it does a good job of communicating the most beautiful and redemptive part of writing, which is the two-pronged joy of confronting your own life and self, processing it, and then utilizing language to distill the whole thing to its essence. Sometimes that’s a statement and sometimes it’s a question. But it helps you get by, is the point. Helps you draw a string through a maze.

If there’s a plot here it’s something we glean only piecemeal: there’s a new young priest in town with what appears to be an ascetic diet of bread and wine and he isn’t really finding himself embraced by the community.

Then it turns out the restrictive diet is the only thing his stomach can handle. He’s terminally ill, but afraid of confronting it.

So he writes and writes.

Director Robert Bresson

The movie is calm and quiet and dark and lean, feels like a whisper, and I’ve always heard the name of the director, Robert Bresson, and associated it with difficulty, intellectual rigor, but I’m delighted to find here that apart from having made a perfectly accessible movie that does focus on character and story, that does prize pathos over everything, there’s a burning yearning churning mind at work that’s exploring questions of God, purpose, meaning.

At the very beginning we see the young priest (Claude Laydu) talking with an old man who can’t afford the candles he wants to use (or did he already use them?) for his wife’s funeral. Wanting to crack the whip here, but also wanting to be a beloved spiritual adviser, the young priest takes the matter to one of his mentors at the church, and the mentor tells him that this desire to be liked will prove poisonous. Says a good priest isn’t liked so much as respected, and this divide—apart from invoking some interesting questions about whether a priest best serves their function as an adviser or (for lack of a better word) enforcer—seems to set the mood for much of what follows.

There’s also something going on here about innocence. The priest finds himself compelled by the angst of one of the children in his parish (is that the word?), he is told by a flustered parent that he (i.e. the priest himself) is a child, and the face of Christ is described, at one point, as that of a child.

One character, in speaking of a place without God, says, “I would take my son to that place.”

It’s a movie that does feel bound by a theme, that does feel cohesive, but its ideas are communicated in these glittering bits of dialogue throughout, so you’re left, at the end of it, with all these shards of ostensibly profundity that seem to fit together, that feel like they do, but their shape doesn’t really present itself.

And this, in a way, feels like the thing that makes it infinite int he way a masterpiece often is. It coheres, but it’s shapeless, and you get the feeling it’ll invite you in to talk about new things again and again if you watch it intermittently through the years.

Norman Mailer

I finally just read Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” in which he suggests, amid a number of ideas that are alternately brilliant and baffling, that one of the great aspects of slang, particularly as it belongs to African Americans and counter-culturalists (“hipsters”), is that the language is vague, amorphous, its meaning contrived by its users. to say, for instance, that something “rocks” is to say that it’s really fun or impressive or good. It’s the slang of a culture. If you don’t belong to that culture then you’ll imagine a pile of rubble or sediment, or perhaps a baby being swayed in a parent’s arms, and you won’t know what the fuck this person is talking about.

“You saying my casserole tastes like ruins?”

The slang words don’t refer to a concrete thing. They communicate an idea via metaphor, or by suggestion, and—just as important—they fall in and out of vogue.

Bresson is communicating ideas here without grounding them in concrete questions of “what should I do with my life” or “Where is God”. He presents us instead with a constellation of thoughts, confessions, questions and actions that, like slang, project no definite meaning but suggest one.

They’re meant to resonate only with the initiated, I think; people who’ve gotten tangled up in these same feelings.

And that suggested meaning will change with the seasons.

The movie’s not all that visually striking, so I’m having some trouble with the selection of stills. Also, the movie appears to be pretty obscure. It wasn’t difficult to find the DVD, but it was definitely inconvenient.

A minimalist film that focuses on community, that looks stark and wears its brainy moral torpor on its sleeve, Diary of a Country Priest is reminiscent, at least in terms of mood, of both Vampyr and The Baker’s Wife.

Otherwise, I’d be curious to know how Bresson went about this. Were there many precedents of such cerebral chatty filmmaking? I’m thinking too about The Life of Emile Zola, an early talkie that really pushed…not the technological boundaries of this newfound sound technology, but the boundaries of its use, if that makes sense. The camera is really static and characters talk for minutes at a time to a stagnant camera.

Speaking of influence: I was taken aback to see how explicitly this inspired Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, which I happened to catch in theaters just a few days prior to settling down with this. Interesting to see them together and note how the conversation has changed, and how it hasn’t.


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