An abridged version of this review by Jeffrey Overstreet was published earlier as a summary for the Arts and Faith Top 100 Films List.
But Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest is an undisputed classic. It was the third of thirteen films by Bresson who, according to Francois Truffaut, is to French movies what Mozart is to German music. And it may be the best entry point for appreciating his unique style.
If this were a “Christian movie,” it would be the story of a cleric who moves into a troubled town and inspires everyone to cultivate compassion for one another through his courageous example. Persecuted villagers would be liberated. Doubters would find God. Bad guys would be exposed and locked up, or else they would crumble into confession. Some dark secret in the cleric’s past would be exposed as a misunderstanding, and he would emerge triumphantly righteous, an example for us all.
Instead, this is a story that is relevant to the world we live in. Things begin messy, and lead to further messy-ness. There are victories, but they are memorable because they are hard-won, faint glimmers of grace in a dark world.
A sensitive new priest (Claude Laydu) moves into a parish in Northern France so he can serve a small village called Ambricourt, only to discover he is less than welcome.
As the town’s dark secrets emerge, his attempts to provide insight or comfort fall on deaf ears, and the weight of the troubles threaten to crush him.
He doesn’t get along well with the older priest up the road, who shows little concern for how the villagers have hurt his feelings.
A local countess is in pieces over the death of her son. The countess’s husband is carrying on an extramarital affair with their daughter’s governess. And their daughter, a cynical and resentful adolescent named Séraphita (Martine Lemaire), is becoming quite a monster.
Exhausted by stomach trouble, the priest relies on what little nourishment he can draw from a strict diet of hard bread and wine. His “godless” doctor does little to lift his spirits.
Thus, the priest’s plight inspires our sympathies, even though he lacks any kind of charm.
A master class in visual composition and sound design, Diary has influenced filmmakers for generations by proving the gravity of telling cinematic stories without many of the common enhancements we’ve been conditioned to expect. Its rare glimpses of the French countryside are stark and striking, suggesting that any man who would truly pursue holiness will walk hard roads through desolate lands.