Diary of a Country Priest, by the remarkable Robert Bresson, is long and slow and dreamlike. It’s narrated from the diary of a priest new to a small town–his first parish. “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insightful secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.” But the film is full of mystery! It’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, but in such a gentle, soft-spoken way, it’s quietly bewildering. At times it seems like a suspense film, a noir film, Gaslight or Rebecca.
The priest faces antagonism from his parish, and we don’t know why. They suspect him of wrongdoing, he’s accused of terrible things, but we don’t fully know what they are. He’s accused of being a drunk, but it’s also possible that the wine he drinks might be bad in some way, or might even be poisoned. It’s never clear if all if this is in his head or if it’s real, and conversations with others rarely clear up the confusion. In his monologue he hints at events and confrontations that we never actually see.
Of course, on an overtly religious level the film is about a man struggling with his faith, which is also his job. He despairs of his ability to pray, and he expresses doubt when he should be professing his complete assurance. This childlike frankness extends to all of his actions. And like a child, it seems as though everything that people tell him comes from a different world, all the advice he’s given seems a little doubtful or strange, as it must seem to a child when somebody tells them to do something they don’t understand. He seems frustratingly weak, sometimes, but like a child, he has a strong voice inside that tells him who he is and what he needs. And, like a child, he makes questionable decisions sometimes about his well-being.
The priest lives on wine, bread, and fruit, because he has a sensitive stomach, and this strange diet and his constant pain leave him dizzy and faint. The film has a beautiful blurred glow, it’s almost out of focus–apparently the result of a poorly attached filter, a mistake which the director loved despite the cameraman’s protest. The landscape is wintery and soft, and the film is visually beautiful. The priest’s face is luminous with a sad quiet glow, and we only see him smile one time, when he’s given a ride on the back of a motorcycle. He’s as childish in his pleasure as he has been in his pain all along.
And when the man who gives him the ride tells him that he imagines they could be friends in different circumstances, he’s endearingly doubtful and glad. Because he’s incredibly alone, he’s completely isolated, and more than anything the film felt to me to be a portrait of loneliness. All of his doubts and fears and bad nights and strange moments of despair and weakness feel so much worse because he has nobody to comfort him. I want somebody to care for him like a child, like the sick child that he is, but despite rare moments of comfort and connection, this doesn’t happen.
I’m not religious in any Christian sense of the world, but I find the priest’s search for faith and grace beautiful on a human level, or perhaps on the level of a human searching for something bigger than themselves, whatever name we happen to give to that. I love searching, doubting characters, characters who ask questions and don’t necessarily expect answers. I’m not a follower of organized religion (though I’m glad it brings comfort to many) but I have ideas about spirituality and soulfulness. I think of the soul as some part of you that you own, some essence of your creativity and your intelligence and your honesty and your vision that’s yours alone and can’t be taken away. Some spark that keeps you alive and lively, despite the often soul-crushing realities of life that we all face. A fire within us, that warms us and lights our way and shines through the dullness and the man-made ugliness. I think that is something this priest would understand.
His solemnity and his honesty raise him above the petty bickering of his parishioners. (Which takes on even more significance, for me, in this era of online pettiness and abuse.) He doesn’t bother to defend himself from their accusations, because his understanding is on a completely different level. When he realizes this he says, beautifully, “I’d discovered with something bordering on joy that I had nothing to say.” I love that. The film is full of unexpectedly beautiful statements like this. His “old master” an odd sort of priest who appears throughout the film, follows a stream of advice with the words, “And now, work. Do little things from day to day while you wait. Little things don’t seem like much, but they bring peace.”
I think that’s true in all of our lives, no matter what our circumstance no matter what our faith. As does his further statement, “Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow, because in this sorry world, the night undoes the work of the day.” For the priest, the little thing that brings peace and order is his writing. He writes because he needs to, with a sort of desperate compulsion. At times he scribbles out what he has written, as if the words are too powerful or too doubtful or too strange. And his quiet voice, narrating the action, sometimes in concert with the actions we see, sometimes just off, before or after the action, is dreamlike and compelling. Such a strange film, so beautifully full of questions and doubts. In the end, just before he dies, the priest is given absolution by a friend who has fallen from his faith. His last words are, “What does it matter? All is grace.”