As an aid to Lenten reflection over the next few weeks, Spero columnist Prof. Michael Martin will offer readers some thoughts on a few of the films he uses in a Religion and Film course he offers every winter semester.
The 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest (French title, Journal d'un curé de champagne) directed by Catholic filmmaker Robert Bresson and based on Georges Bernanos’ 1937 novel of the same name is one of the more subtle—and most poignant—treatments of religious themes in celluloid.
By current tastes, the film may seem to move a bit slowly. Filmed in black and white and during a snowless winter, the film’s palette emphasizes the mundane, the unexceptional, the, let’s face it, boring. There are no moments of dramatic intensity, no depictions of visionary ecstasy, no evocations of Christic passion and pathos. Instead, what we find is an unobtrusive and nearly undetectable unfolding of grace. Bresson does the seeming impossible: he shows how grace works in the lives of Christians.
The film’s youthful protagonist, the otherwise unnamed Priest of Ambricourt (played by Claude Laydu), is essentially a failure in his vocation. He is perpetually sick, perpetually melancholy. His digestion is delicate and he subsists only on stale bread soaked in wine (an obvious allusion to the Eucharist). His parishioners gossip about him, disrespect him, and even the children treat him with contempt. He receives an anonymous letter from his only daily communicant—and she tells him to leave town. As his one friend, the elder Priest of Torcy, reminds him, “Your great schemes don’t hold water.” Not exactly a recipe for success.
The subtlety of the film unfolds in the young priest’s interactions with the parishioners he tries to shepherd. His plans to intervene never work out as he thinks. But, just as the viewer concludes the young priest’s intentions are impotent, something occurs to show the action of God in the lives of the characters. At these moments, precisely the right thing comes out of his mouth—to his own surprise as much as that of those he counsels. In this way, Bresson figures the way grace uses the priest as a vessel. It is clearly not his doing.
An accompanying theme to that of grace in the film is the importance of prayer. For the Priest of Ambricourt, prayer is not always easy. He often feels abandoned by God. But, he concludes, “the desire to pray is already prayer,” and he finds the strength to carry on. A life prayer, the film quietly, almost imperceptibly argues, no matter how patchwork and incomplete a life that is, is essential for providing grace a way into the world, for man’s participation with God in the work of salvation.
The film does not finish with a very Hollywood ending. The young priest learns that his digestive troubles have a very serious origin: stomach cancer. We watch as he dies in the house of his friend, a lapsed priest working as an apothecary and living with a woman to whom he is not married. In a letter addressed to the Priest of Torcy, the apothecary recounts his friend’s last moments as the scene dissolves from a close-up of the letter to the black shadow of a cross which imprints itself more and more into the viewer’s awareness:
“…he asked for absolution. His face grew calm. He even smiled. Though neither humanity nor friendship would permit me to refuse, while discharging my duties, I explained to my unfortunate comrade my hesitation at granting his request. He didn’t seem to hear me. But a few minutes later, he laid his hands on mine, while his eyes entreated me to draw closer to him. He said then, very distinctly, if extremely slowly, these exact words…. ‘What does it matter? All is grace.’ I believe he died just then.”
Bresson’s film is not the kind which one simply watches for entertainment value. Rather, it is one which, like an icon, invites the viewer to contemplate the images, sounds, and words it enshrines and remind us of what is an essential and all-too-easily-missed religious truth: that despite our misperceptions, all is grace.
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD teaches English at Marygrove College.