Rarely have form and content been married as harmoniously as in director Robert Bresson's 1951 breakthrough Diary Of A Country Priest, which honors the piety of a besieged young man of the cloth with the unsparing rigor of a traditional Catholic mass. On the helpful DVD commentary track, historian Peter Cowie contends that no other director has ever matched Bresson's "simplicity of expression," his sculptor's impulse to chisel away any extraneous elements. Nothing in Diary Of A Country Priest, Bresson's fourth feature, happens by accident: The stark images suggest a village bereft of natural and spiritual life, the camera moves only to emphasize key moments, and the soundtrack enforces the title character's isolation from the outside world. Bresson's extraordinary economy and precision of language give his films a special intensity, but the same elements can also make them seem so airless and worked-over that the viewer has no access point. Based on a Georges Bernanos novel, Diary Of A Country Priest never strays from the perspective of priest Claude Laydu, and it layers the scenes with prolonged entries from his diaries, which are intended as a window into his suffering. Yet Laydu, cast as one of Bresson's opaque "models" (i.e., not quite "actors"), never yields palpable motivations and emotions, which is especially remarkable considering how directly his thoughts are communicated. Minding a flock that's long since strayed into faithlessness, Laydu comes to town as an outsider viewed with suspicion and contempt, but he lacks the strength to turn the tide. Even his most devout parishioner—the only person to show up for daily mass—writes him an anonymous poison-pen letter advising him to "get out." In spite of the common-sense advice of André Guibert, a priest in a neighboring town, Laydu's ineffectual personality only exacerbates the problem, particularly in his dealings with a local family torn by blatant infidelity and personal tragedy. Much like his Danish contemporary Carl Dreyer, Bresson approaches cinema with a near-monastic obsession to detail, and that style limited both men to a relatively sparse filmography over several decades. As Cowie notes, Dreyer and Bresson drew intensity from extreme isolation; it's no coincidence that each did a movie about Joan Of Arc. If nothing else, Diary Of A Country Priest makes Laydu's isolation so vivid that it jibes with the ordeal of watching the film, which involves making a connection with him that seems like an act of faith. Only in the transcendent closing minutes is that faith rewarded by grace, for priest and spectator alike.
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