Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

One of the world cinema’s most ‘interiorised’ films about religious faith as Bresson centers on the thoughts of a suffering priest who is received coldly in the new village he has been posted to.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,512

Dir. Robert Bresson
1951 | France | Drama | 115 min | 1.33:1 | French
PG (passed clean)

Cast: Claude Laydu, Nicole Ladmiral, Jean Riveyre
Plot: A new priest arrives in the rural French village of Ambricourt to attend his first parish. The apathetic congregation rejects him immediately. Through his diary entries, the suffering young man relays a crisis of faith that threatens to drive him away from the village and from God.
Awards: Won International Award – Best Cinematography, Italian Film Critics Award, OCIC Award & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for Best Foreign Actor (BAFTAs)
Distribution: Studiocanal

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Religious Faith; Torment
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

With his third feature, Robert Bresson got the breakthrough film he deserved with Diary of a Country Priest, which is still one of the great films about religious faith in world cinema. 

A young priest is newly-posted to a village to take over the local parish, but everyone receives his arrival coldly.  To make matters worse, he suffers from a mysterious stomach ailment, consuming only bread and wine every day.  As he endures both physiological and psychological torment, he must also contend with the growing spectre of spiritual torment. 

Bresson’s approach is incredibly ‘interiorised’, that is to say, the film is much more interested in thoughts rather than actions, or the subliminal rather than concrete reality. 

“The simplest tasks aren’t the easiest.”

The ostracised priest must continue to do his job; in his free time, he finds solace in describing his ‘torments’ in his diary, as well as the interactions with a few people whom he has had the misfortune of encountering.  Having said that, ‘misfortune’ isn’t quite in the priest’s dictionary as he treats everyone as an opportunity for change. 

Shot in a poetic way that captures small-town life with a sense of quietude, Diary of a Country Priest builds hostility and turbulence in the mind, but also calm and serenity. 

Claude Laydu, in his debut performance, cuts a sympathetic character as the priest—he doesn’t say much despite his hyperactive mind, but when he does, particularly in a sequence where he tries to heal a long-suffering Countess with an extended theological conversation, each word uttered carries moral and spiritual weight.  This is cinema on how to live with a clear conscience. 

Grade: A-



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