Top positive review
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A Strange and Beautiful Film
on February 6, 2004
Diary of a Country Priest, which made Bresson a name in French cinema, is one of the most perplexing films I've ever seen, despite being one of his earliest. Here he begins developing the minimalistic style that would mature throughout the rest of his unprolific career. The editing is furious and bizarre, unlike anything in any other film. Long, forboding shots of natural settings are closed in by barrages of short, clausterphobic indoor shots. Scenes often begin in the middle, or even after the important dramatic events. What I noticed most of all is that sound often preceeds the image -- and many time the screen is black for several seconds, leaving the viewer to absorb and reflect solely on the audio before the visuals kick in. And, oddly enough, reading of the diary is accompanied by the actual shot of the priest writing, defying the cinematic "rule" that sound isn't needed. Bresson makes full use of all cinematic effects, and listening to this film is as important as watching it.
The film is adapted from the French conservative Catholic novelist Bernanos's book of the same title. It is faithful to some degree, but with small, very important departures. A young, sickly priest arrives in a miserable French village and is immediately outcasted by the townspeople. Living off of hard bread and sugared wine (one of many almost too-obvious religious symbols), he desperately tries to make a spiritual difference in the town. The more he tries, however, the more suspicion and scandal is heaped on him by the townspeople, especially the local count, who entertains a mistress while his wife and daughter fall into a bottomless pit of morbidity and hatred. His spiritual failures are echoed by his physical weakness, and at last his constitution gives out.
The relationship between the material and the physical is, it seems to me, the most important theme. The Priest's failure to impact the worldly affairs of the town reveals the deep, frustrating relationship between these two worlds. The young Priest's frail physical being is in complete contrast with his saintliness and spiritual strength. The relationship here, too, is complicated. The physical weakness seems to point to a spiritual malady, as his physical isolation increases his spiritual doubt. The memorable performance of the ghastly thin and pale Claude Laydu as the Priest shows us a man, or rather a child, being crushed under these tremendous pressures. This is a film about man's loneliness, hardship, and, most of all, his failures.
Another reviewer complains about the quality of this transfer. This surprises me, since Criterion has done an excellent job here. I simply don't see the problems they're referring to. Digitally Obsessed gave it an A grade, saying, "This is really just a stunning transfer, with strong blacks and nuance throughout the black-and-white palette; occasionally things look a little gauzy, but that seems to be due to some inferior source material, and no fault of the transfer." I completely agree.
This is a beautiful film, and I'm glad to finally see it on DVD. In many ways it reminds me of Bergman's Winter Light, and its worth noting that Tarkovsky considered this his favorite film (Bergman's a close second). Criterion's transfer is, as usual, striking -- well worth the heavy price tag. The promised extra 11 minutes of deleted scenes didn't materialize, since Bresson's estate made it known that they didn't want the scenes released. This makes the extras seem extremely sparse: a trailer and an audio commentary track by Peter Cowie (which is some times insightful, some times rambling). Nevertheless, ita an extraordinary and unique film that all film lovers should look into.