Redemption stories are everywhere. Take a character down on her luck; watch her stagger through the mud of life for two hours; then rejoice as she comes out clean on the other side of her trials. Such stories are common because they reflect a deep desire in human beings to rise above the temporal cares and tribulations of life and grasp onto to something pure and real and true.
Filmmakers have been exploring and capitalizing on this universal human desire since the cinematic medium was invented. But few have explored redemption with as much formal interest, and, in certain cases, rigor, as Robert Bresson did in his first feature, Les anges du péché (The Angels of Sin).
The story follows a group of nuns as they bring two new members, Anne-Marie and Thérèse, into their family. This particular community of nuns specializes in serving imprisoned women while they are in prison, and offering them a place in the convent when they are freed. Anne-Marie comes to the sisters from a bourgeois life. With no prison in her background, she stands apart from most of the nuns. Thérèse on the other hand, begins the film as the most feared inmate in the prison. Only through Anne-Marie, an instrument of grace in the film, does Thérèse finally find her redemption. What makes Bresson’s film both interesting and excellent is not in his choice of tales, but rather in how he executes this telling of that old redemption story.
Undergirding Anne-Marie’s redemptive function is a maxim she receives, the maxim being a short quotation that each nun will seek to embody throughout the year. Anne-Marie’s maxim comes from Catherine of Siena, who wrote, “If you hear the word that ties you to another human being, do not listen to any others that follow—they are merely its echo.” The redemption in Les anges du péché only occurs when, as in the quote from Catherine, one person is tied to another. Redemption requires identification and union. Bresson illustrates these requirements in numerous ways throughout the film, but one scene stands out from among the rest (at least until the ending, which I won’t give away here, but which certainly underlines and continues what Bresson sets up in the following scene).
The scene in question takes place nearly halfway through the movie’s run time. The connection between Anne-Marie and Thérèse has already been established, the former somewhat pridefully, though genuinely, expressing her desire to raise up Thérèse from her lowly state. Only Thérèse has unexpectedly—at least as far as Anne-Marie is concerned—rejected the offer of help. Anne-Marie returns to the convent undaunted by this setback, and enters the chapel to pray that her desires will be fulfilled. The screen captures below offer a sense of the two shots following the close-up of Anne-Marie’s prayer, a wide shot of Anne-Marie bowing to pray in the chapel, and a well-designed tracking shot of Thérèse in a hallway, on her way to kill the man who wronged her.
Bresson’s mise-en-scene connects these two women beautifully. The echo of the banister in the first shot appears in shadow in the second. This visual element sets up the tension between the women, at once connecting and distinguishing the women. Could the use of shadow in the second shot indicate that Thérèse’s state is somehow lesser than Anne-Marie’s? Bresson heightens the contrast between the women by the difference in setting, rich and comfortable in the former, barren and stark in the latter. Yet even with this contrast, Bresson manages, at the same time to frame it with an underlying unification between the women, as Thérèse moves into the stairwell to occupy the exact space in the frame that Anne-Marie occupied in the previous shot.
At once distinct from and identified with one another, Anne-Marie and Thérèse occupy drastically different places in their lives, though despite that, their fates are inextricably linked one to another. Bresson makes this formal connection in the most significant scene of the movie (at least until the ending), the scene that will determine the ultimate fate of both of these women, a moment of life and death. Redemption will ultimately occur through this union, and because of it. In this darkest of moments for Thérèse, she shares a deep connection with Anne-Marie, even if, at this point, Thérèse has not reciprocated. In this brief sequence, we see a prayer being answered; we see the deep meaning of Christian love and concern for another person; and we see grace on the move, even as a woman guns down another human being. Both the mystery and the clarity of redemption are on full display in these two shots—a microcosm of the entire film, and of life.