Diary of a Country Priest
Come 1951’s Journal d’un curé de campagne, 50-year-old director Robert Bresson had helmed three unremarkable movies. With this hypnotic examination of a priest overseeing a rural population that has long since abandoned its faith, Bresson takes his first steps toward becoming a supergenius. Meticulously composed, paced, shot, and told, Diary of a Country Priest feels as if patiently carved from ivory, each little action, breath, glance, and off-screen sound a monumental earthquake. The titular unfortunate (Claude Laydu) arrives sickly and naive at Ambricourt, where the villagers not only feel they don’t need this man of the cloth but may actually be outwardly hostile and threatening to him. The priest records his labors with the townsfolk in his journal as he casually drifts down a slope of poor health and his own faith crisis. And, no, Diary doesn’t put a final-reel happy ending on all this heavy alienation. Over his next 10 movies Bresson astutely refined this sparse sense of filmic purity, earning a reputation as cinema’s most extreme ascetic—which he undeniably deserved. A Bresson movie can make Ingmar Bergman feel like Michael Bay, but if you can find a way inside his sensual world, rare are the movies that can compete with it.