Saturday, March 29, 2008

All is grace

If suffering is an essential part of the clerical calling, then Robert Bresson's 1950 film Diary of a Country Priest is it's most eloquent expression. I've been watching it again. It tells the story of a young priest sent to the provincial French town of Ambricourt -- a spiritual wasteland if ever there was one. Beset by a wasting disease (which turns out to be cancer), apathetic parishioners and outright hostility, the film meticulously documents his physical and spiritual anguish through the voice of his diary. Bresson claimed the many close-ups of the priest's hand writing in the diary to be the most important shots of the film. Essayist Frédéric Bonnaud gives a particularly pessimistic postmodern synopsis of the film:

Diary of a Country Priest is a film about imprisonment. As he carries out the duties of his ministry, the priest tries to act as a link between his parish and the local population. But he ends up just another body, a dark blotch on the landscape, a mere spectator who quickly becomes transparent in the eyes of his flock. So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.

I suppose that's one way to look at it. The Priest of Ambricourt cuts a pathetic figure compared to his more wordly clerical superiors and the aristocratic family he becomes entangled with. He's even mocked by a Lolita-esque peasant girl. But I find his story a more hopeful one. One French critic quipped that to understand Diary of a Country Priest one must have "a belief either in Heaven or in the cinema." I believe in both. To me, this is a portrait of strength in weakness pointing toward the foolishness of the cross. And if one accepts that the saving of one soul is worth more than the whole world, then this is far from a story of defeat. But I also believe in "the cinema" and this is a film that transcends the subjective reading of any one viewer. Some see in the priest a "portrait of the artist as disturber of the peace." Others simply see a film where the tools of cinema have been honed to their sharpest edge. All true. To quote the last words of the film and the last words of the young Father -- whose Christian name is never given as best I can recall -- "What does it matter? All is grace."


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