Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Increasingly I am finding disjunction as a means of producing a transcendent vision highlighted in the cinema of Robert Bresson. A recent viewing of his 1951 adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novel, Diary of a Country Priest has strengthened my perception of this Bressonian strategy.

One of the more notable qualities of Bresson’s films beginning with Country Priest and extending throughout his career, is the largely stoic, even blank look of the actors. For many used to traditional Hollywood emoting, this can be off-putting. However, through this “oddity” in his films, Bresson creates an invitation for the viewer to look more closely, to see beyond just the face and behold the person.

Such an approach to the acting, along with certain distinctive visual choices, presents an interesting case study of disjunction in Bresson’s world. Nearly halfway through Country Priest, a film which tracks the travails of a young priest in his first parish, the titular character receives the shocking news that the local countess has died. The priest had a significant, positive spiritual encounter with this woman just prior to receiving this news, one where he blessed her with peace, his raised hand falling to her lowered head, where he made the sign of the cross over her. and he visits her home twice the day after her death.

The priest then visits her home twice the day after her death. Each of the two visits, which appear back to back, open with a brief look at the priest’s journal. In the first, he writes in the present moment, recording simply that the woman has died, thereby introducing the whole sequence. However, the rest of the dialogue in the sequence—including another brief appearance of the journal between the two home visits—is in the past tense. After an initial moment in the present then, the rest of the action follows the priest’s writing about past events. This structural disjunction prepares the way for similar contrasts in both the visual approach and the acting of these scenes.

Bresson displays the first visit in a single shot, the camera placed on the near side of the bed at the headboard and zooming in on the priest as the camera follows him to the right. The man enters the countess’ room, stops at the foot of the bed, blesses her with raised hand, and then kneels. At this moment, the camera tracks back toward its original position, leaving the priest alone in prayer before the bed.

When the priest arrives in the room for the second time that day, Bresson again displays the visit in a single shot, the camera this time placed on the far side of the bed. The priest enters the room, stands at the footboard bookended by two candles, and silently prays. He then walks around to the far side of the bed and kneels into a close-up. In this case, the camera remains near the priest rather than pulling away, as it did during his first visit. The priest pulls back the muslin cover over the woman’s face, touches her forehead with his hand, gets up and walks out.

Clearly these two shots are a pair—taking place in the same room, shot in the same style, and involving the same key movements. The slight differences between the scenes bring interest to the character and highlight his tenuous situation in the film. A quick comparison might help break down the differences between these scenes:

First Visit

  • Camera placed near the priest
  • Empty room
  • Expresses himself with priestly function
  • Kneeling, prayerful act in wide shot
  • Shot ends with him kneeling 

Second Visit

  • Camera placed away from the priest
  • Room filled with guests
  • Expresses a personal loss
  • Kneeling, prayerful act in extreme close-up
  • Shot ends when he leaves the room

While the camera spends more time nearer (either by proximity or zoom) the priest in the first visit, the scene remains impersonal and abstract. He performs his priestly duty by blessing her and praying. However, before he arrives in the room for the second visit, he acknowledges the presence of a priest already there in an official capacity. This presents an opportunity for a more personal visit. Bresson keeps the camera further from him to begin, a distancing effect that seems to objectivize the moment. However, when the priest unexpectedly (at least based on his actions in the previous scene) moves directly toward the camera and kneels at the woman’s side, the situation is no longer a distant action. Here in extreme close-up, the priest once again raises his hand. But instead of blessing the countess as he did in his first visit, he brushes her face with his fingers. The moment feels intimate in a way reminiscent of his moment of blessing the countess earlier in the film—a moment she told him brought her a deep and abiding peace. And clearly, that previous encounter is on his mind, as he reminisces about ministering to her a peace he himself did not have—the miracle of empty hands, as he calls it.

The stoic figure of the priest throughout these sequences, up to and including the emotional encounter at the end of the second visit, stands at strong contrast with the words he speaks. This disjunction invites contemplation of the world within the frame. And the priest’s words suggest a world both in concert with and beyond that world within the frame. Bresson’s use of the close-up highlights this deeply personal moment. The priest’s actions through most of the sequence suggest strength and commitment to his duty as a priest. The priest’s actions at the end of the sequence suggest a deep struggle or sorrow. However, in the latter case, his face suggests nothing of the kind. In this contrast we begin to perceive hints of an unseen world of deep spiritual upheaval in the priest, an upheaval masked by his straightforward ways. This scene then is a Bressonian invitation to see the physical realm, and in seeing it clearly, to see beyond it.

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