A nameless unassuming priest tries vainly to understand the contempt of the local parishioners, courteously bearing his physical and emotional cross. Director Robert Bresson’s subjective narrative is like gentle penmanship upon the blank pages of the soul, giving concrete relevance to abstract ideals and misunderstandings as if salvation is self-evident in the cryptic Book of Life.
The priest’s young visage is tormented by a painful stomach condition that allows him to only digest bread and wine, a virulent Eucharist that slowly consumes him. Bresson begins the film with the priest framed through the iron bars of the small church, a prisoner in a strange land, as a man and woman gaze with disgust at this intruder, like a judge who just witnessed their mystic tryst. He often seeks advice of his mentor, an older and more pugilistic priest from Torcy who admonishes him for wanting to be liked: he should be more concerned with punishing his flock to gain respect.
He soon discovers that a local woman is wasting away in grief and he confronts her, strong in his belief and convictions: to give her comfort he must burn away the hardened veneer that separates her from the Word, and he succeeds though she dies happily the following day. But the family and townsfolk blame him for her death, believing he was too harsh for her weakened condition…and he never shares her letter that would set him free of their judgment. The knowledge is between him and his god. He questions his faith when a local doctor commits suicide, and seeks guidance, which is cruelly denied him.
Actor Claude Laydu is wonderfully subdued as the passive priest, conveying little emotion except the gentle repose of his piercing eyes, dark prisms of his soul. Bresson often films him through windows and framed in doorways, a rigid and inflexible character contrasted by right angles, a victim captured in a static portrait. He suffers greatly for his god and it’s ambiguous if his condition is bad luck…brought upon himself purposely or unconsciously because of his unhealthy diet, as if being closer to death will bring him closer to divinity. Like Job, he suffers the torment of the righteous: If god is not a torturer, it’s a least a sadist. Bresson dictates a bitter journal of hope and despair, an elemental liturgy of malignant salvation.
Final Grade: (B+)