Film Review: Diary of a Country Priest (1950)

Few films, and even fewer directors, can match the depth and profound simplicity of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. Bresson is a master of the art, one of the great directors who was a painter turned filmmaker, and his minimalist aesthetic allows the unadorned moments of life speak with revelatory volume. In Diary, based on the book by Georges Bernanos, we follow the priest of Ambricourt through his short ministry in a difficult French parish. The priest is not idealized, and the film uses the diary motif to explore the inner life of a man struggling to minister while never being minister to himself—though he desperately needs it.

A consistent theme is the priest's own faith or lack of faith. Doubt is perhaps the temptation that plagues him. On a cold, rainy night, we see the priest look very downtrodden while his voice reads the diary entry:
I couldn't pray. I know very well that the desire to pray is already prayer, and that God couldn't ask for more. But it wasn't a question of duty. At that moment, I needed prayer like I needed air in my lungs or oxygen in my blood.
Later he writes: "God has left me. Of this I am sure." The film refuses to shy away from the difficult questions of belief and the presence of God. The fact that it does so from the context of a parish priest is all the more striking, particularly as an oblique commentary on the state of piety and religion in continental Europe.

But this is just the beginning of the film. As the priest encounters more people and grows through these various experiences, we see a true man of God develop before our eyes. Once again, not idealized but at least one full of wisdom. This is nowhere more evident than in the pivotal scene of the film. The context is too complicated to explain here, but suffice it to say that he meets with a rich woman who has an unruly daughter that comes to the priest often to complain about her parents. This woman has been depressed and locked up in her pride ever since her young son tragically died. I have transcribed her conversation with the priest, because it is full of profound wisdom and offers much for serious thought. For those who have read C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce—and that should be everyone—this scene in the film is eerily reminiscent of the episode in chapter 11 with the woman who lost her son, Michael, and wants to see him again.

Woman: Anyway, we'll be judged by our acts. What have I done wrong? ...
Priest: God will break you.
W: Break me? He has broken me already. God took my son from me. What more can He do to me? I no longer fear Him.
P: God took him away for a time, but your hardness—
W: Silence.
P: No, I will not be silent. The coldness of your heart may keep you from him forever.
W: That's blasphemy! God does not take revenge!
P: Those are mere human words, with no meaning except for you.
W: Are you saying my son might hate me?
P: You will no longer see or know each other.
W: No sin could make such a punishment just. This is madness. A sick man's dreams! ... Nothing can part us from those we have loved more than life, more than salvation itself. Love is stronger than death. Your scriptures say so.
P: We did not invent love. It has its order, its law.
W: God is its master.
P: He is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you would love, don't place yourself beyond love's reach.
W: This is insane! You speak to me as you would to a criminal. Do my husband's infidelities and my daughter's indifference and rebellion and hatred count for nothing? You might as well say it's all my fault!
P: No one knows what can come of an evil thought in the long run. Our hidden faults poison the air others breathe.
W: You'd never get through the day if you dwelt on such thoughts!
P: I believe that, madam, I believe if God gave us a clear idea of how closely we are bound to each other in good and evil, we truly could not live.
W: Pray tell, what is this hidden sin?
P: You must resign yourself. Open your heart.
W: Resign myself? To what? Am I not resigned? If I weren't, I'd be dead. Resigned? I've been too much so. I should have killed myself!
P: That's not the resignation I mean.
W: Then what? I go to Mass. I could have given up worship altogether. Indeed, I thought of it.
P: How dare you treat God like that!
W: I lived in peace, and I should have died in peace.
P: That is no longer possible.
W: God has ceased to matter to me. What will you gain by making me admit I hate Him, you fool?
P: You don't hate Him now. Now at last you are face-to-face. He and you.
[Pause. She sits down and fumbles with a picture of her son.]
W: Do you swear—
P: You can't bargain with God. You must yield to Him unconditionally. But I can assure you there isn't one kingdom for the living and one for the dead. There is only the kingdom of God, and we are within it.
W: You know what I was wondering a moment ago? Perhaps I shouldn't tell you. I was saying to myself, "If there were, in this world or the other, some place free from God, if it meant suffering a death every second, eternally, I'd carry my son to that place, and I'd say to God: 'Do Your worst and crush us!'" Is that monstrous?
P: No.
W: What do you mean, no?
P: Because I too have felt that way at times. ... Madam, if our God were the god of the pagans or philosophers, though he might take refuge in the highest heavens, our misery would drag him down. But, as you know, ours did not wait. You might shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, whip Him with rods, and finally nail Him to a cross. What would it matter? It is already done.
W: What must I say to Him?
P: Say: Thy kingdom come.
W: Thy kingdom come.
P: Thy will be done.
W: I can't. It's as if I were losing him twice over.
P: The kingdom whose coming you have just wished for is yours and his.
W: Then let that kingdom come!

It is worth bringing out the relation between this scene and the episode in The Great Divorce. In Lewis's great book, a Spirit speaks to the Ghost of the mother, saying, "You're treating God only as a means to Michael. But the whole [process of entering heaven] consists in learning to want God for His own sake. ... You exist as Michael's mother only because you first exist as God's creature." And not much later, the Spirit says, "[God] wanted you to love Michael as He understands love. You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God." Sadly, the mother says later, "No one had a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. ... I hate your religion and I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of Love."

What the priest communicates so beautifully in Diary is that this God of Love breaks us of our own will, our desire for half-loves and half-truths, in order to bring about God's will and God's kingdom where love and truth reign, where God is "all in all." Once the woman in the film hears this, she understands that praying for God's will to be done may be painful, but it is the narrow path through which she must pass to find true freedom. That God is love is true. But "we did not invent love." It is not our love but God's love which must have the last word, and that may mean breaking us of our own perverted loves. We must relinquish control and bring to God, as the priest says elsewhere, "the miracle of our empty hands."

This film should be owned by every pastor and priest, and it should be required viewing for every seminarian. I would say Christians in general, but unfortunately most would rather not bother with an obscure French film about a pious Catholic. But they would be missing out on something deeply important: a film about grace, and not the cheap grace of most movies these days but the most costly grace of all—the grace of the cross.

At the very end of the film, it is recounted in a letter that the country priest, as he dies from cancer, asks for absolution from his friend and fellow seminarian. His friend hesitates and is not sure if he should grant the request because he left seminary and was not officially ordained, even though everything in his being tells him that he should grant absolution. I will quote the final lines of the film:
He [the priest] did not seem to hear me. But a few moments later, he laid his hands on mine while his eyes entreated me to draw closer to him. He then said, very distinctly, if extremely slowly, these exact words: "What does it matter? All is grace." I believe he died just then.
"All is grace." Indeed, that is the sum of the gospel. While this entire letter is being read at the film's close, the screen shows only a blank wall with a large cross in the middle. For the last several minutes of the film, we see only the cross, as a kind of reminder that it is there that we find grace and absolution and nowhere else. As the priest said to the distraught woman, "It is already done." Yes, it is. Amen, and amen.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Diary of a Country Priest is truly a remarkable movie. It can speak more than ten sermons.
byron said…
Thanks once again for your review. I'll definitely see it now.
danyulengelke said…
Great review!

We're linking to your article for Religious Flicks Tuesday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

Keep up the good work!