Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne, Bresson, 1951)

A performance of austerity on the subject of austerity. A filmmaker practices austerity to create art; a priest (Claude Laydu) practices austerity to instill faith: both seek to fluorish growth amidst the people. The ascetic habits and characteristics of the Priest are at once reflected in the ascetic filmmaking and, by extension, Robert Bresson himself. Diary of A Country Priest, in all its simplicity and tenderness, may be the finest expression of Robert Bresson’s spiritual self.

In the film Directed By Andrei Tarkovsky, the legendary Russian filmmaker states that there’s a certain lightness to Bresson’s films — that they exist in their own world. I couldn’t agree more. Elements are stripped away, and time is slowed down so that one may appreciate reality more acutely; it’s as if one was given some kind of phenomenal focal lens with which to peer at reality itself, allowing one to slow things down and dignify them.

This, in itself, is the goal of the ascetic. From Buddhist ascetics in India to Taoist ascetics in China to Christian ascetics in the European countryside, asceticism is the practice of austerity in order to enrichen the mind. One denies oneself but only of the basics, enough to subsist; the Buddha, Siddartha Gautama would eat a single seed per day. The idea at hand is that to deny oneself of worldly pleasures, one denies oneself of desire — attachment. While the body experiences suffering, the mind is at rest and may see things more clearly. One becomes more observant, perceptive, and attuned with reality.

While the priest of our story struggles, he is a true ascetic. He denies his body of the nutrition it needs, and sees with an open mind. However, his kindness prevents him from true austerity; he feels attached to the lives of the family he seeks to help. It is not until his final moment that he realizes: “What does it all matter. All is grace”.

Reflecting the nature of the priest, the filmmaking is done in a similar vein. In regards to both cinematography — how the film is shot — and mise-en-scène — what is shot, Bresson films like an ascetic, showing only the essentials, in order that his films do not express a sense of attachment. Diary of A Country Priest attains this goal completely; the powerful lightness of its simplicity and austerity is extraordinary, even for Bresson.

The most common thing that people first appreciate of Bresson’s films is the lack of emotion of the on-screen characters; this may mistakenly lend itself to a sense of coldness which may put off the viewer. With Diary of A Country Priest, one may do best in telling of Bresson’s true aim here.

All facial expressions are, to varying degrees, an expression of one’s personal thoughts. Thoughts which arise from the ego. Thoughts about whether they find something funny,  scary, disturbing etc.. Facial expressions may be read. You see a person’s facial expression and you can feel what they are thinking, and all conscious thoughts exist in the home of the ego.

So, by not having emotional expressions, Bresson resists the need to egotize the characters. They don’t exactly show whether they are happy, or scared, or sad, etc.; instead, Bresson uses blank stares that may be universally appropriated. This opens up spiritual doors, since the characters are not defined by overemphasized emotions, and the viewers do not feel a sense of attachment. The simplicity and austerity renders a sense of detachment, what is necessary for spiritual discovery. Bresson is practically forcing you to be an ascetic for a couple hours — to transcend reality and come back with the experience.

While black-and-white automatically makes a film more austere than a colour counterpart, Bresson films Diary of A Country Priest with a certain darkness that speaks to a kind of void or permanence. The black robes of the parish, the low-key lighting and ominous shadows, and night-time darkness: these things replete the film with a sense of death and spirituality. For example, when Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral) is in confession, all one can see is her face — it’s pitch black around her; this minimalist tendency makes her expression that much more powerful. The despair and desperation in her eyes and voice pierce the soul.

Much like how some may resist Bresson’s austere filmmaking, the people of Ambricourt resist the priest. The count (Jean Rivyere) is especially recalcitrant. They don’t understand his asceticism, it it is alien to them, and their obstinacy prevents them from accepting him. In much the same way, some audiences will be put off by Bresson; however, as the countess realizes before her death, opening herself up to the possibility of freedom imparted by the priests austerity took her somewhere she never thought possible. Should the chance be given, Bresson’s films have this same power.

10/10

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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