A drama of doubt set in a small town in occupied France, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1961 film Léon Morin, Priest lets an unstable place being passed back and forth between warring forces mirror the psyche of its protagonist. That isn’t the eponymous Léon Morin, a priest played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, but a widow played by Emmanuelle Riva, who, after fleeing to the provinces to protect herself and her half-Jewish daughter, is newly imperiled when the Italians and then the Germans overrun her new home. Though she’s a communist, Riva decides to amuse herself by making confession, but she learns her ideas aren’t so far apart from Belmondo’s progressive notions about who the Catholic Church should be helping and what should worry the faithful. Over the course of the film, they trade books and ideas as the unyielding Belmondo slowly wins over Riva’s soul as the war draws to a close.
That’s the drama on the surface of Léon Morin, Priest, but the film is about what goes on beneath the surface. Melville cast Belmondo on the strength of his work in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (in which Melville had a small, memorable role) and Belmondo brings a similar sexual charge to his work here. Riva—and later, others—are drawn to his ideas, but also to the man himself, and the film generates tremendous tension from the subtext of their religious discussions. Melville frames them suggestively, showing the characters’ growing intimacy and the way Belmondo uses his own attractiveness while underscoring the priest’s commitment to his vows.
Now best known for noir-inspired dramas, most of which lay ahead of him in 1961, Melville earned acclaim and popular success with Léon Morin, whose vignettes revisited an ugly, recent chapter in French history. Adapting a semi-autobiographical novel by Béatrix Beck, the film uses these vignettes—an approach that sometimes feels a bit ragged—to recreate the instability of life during wartime, the particulars of its heroine’s spiritual development, and the relationship between the two. Riva finds God with Belmondo’s guidance, but Melville strongly suggests conversion almost certainly wouldn’t have taken place without her sexual attraction to Belmondo, or the uncertainty of her surroundings. He also takes a muted approach to her newfound faith: There are no blinding lights or ecstatic realizations, just a woman who comes to see the world differently, and trades in her old doubts for a new set of questions, including one the film’s final moments leaves open: Is it possible to find the peace of heaven without sacrificing happiness on Earth?
Key features: Commentary on selected scenes, deleted scenes from the much-longer original cut (the trims were Melville’s ideas), vintage interviews with Melville and Belmondo, and a booklet containing a typically frank interview with Melville, who refers to Léon as a “very Catholic film” while stating “I don’t understand how people can believe in God any more than in Father Christmas.”