Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest is one of the most deeply Catholic films I’ve ever seen. Faithfully adapting its source material, Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos’ fictional autobiography of a soul, the film profoundly contemplates the spiritual meaning of suffering and persecution, conversion and incorrigibility, and the dark night of the soul with a rigor and insight evocative of Augustine’s Confessions or Thérèse’s Story of a Soul.
The story is simple. A sensitive, frail young priest (Claude Laylu) arrives in a rural parish in spiritual decline. Vulnerable in his inexperience, he meets with indifference, polite toleration, even open mockery. An older, experienced priest from a neighboring parish, a worldly but not unspiritual man, gives him advice that is striking both for its practicality and its cynicism: "Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow."
But whether due to idealism or naivete, the younger priest is unable to accept this pragmatic view of things. At the same time, his physical sufferings as well as spiritual dryness make it almost impossible to pursue his spiritual life and duties as he feels he should.
At first it seems that his bodily ailment, a stomach condition that he finds permits him to eat little more than bread and wine, mirrors his troubled spiritual condition. Yet as his physical condition rebounds while his inability to pray worsens, it becomes apparent that the connection between body and soul is more subtle, and that how one feels, physically or spiritually, is not always a reliable indication of one’s true condition.
Amid constant failure and rejection, the priest has only a single, striking victory: a spiritual exchange with a bitter countess recalling the dialogues of The Brothers Karamazov or the debate with Count Smokrev in Michael O’Brian’s Father Elijah. Yet even his failures, dryness, and persecutions he accepts with submissiveness, turning them into a kind of victory, a grace.
Bresson cast Laylu, a devout Catholic with no previous acting experience, in part because of his faith, and the actor reportedly spent months living with young priests to absorb their mannerisms, as well as rigorously fasting to achieve the character’s wan, ascetic look. Yet it was only on seeing the finished film that Laylu realized he had played a saint.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.