A Film Diet of Wine and Stale Bread

I have only reached 1951 in my "1001 Movies you must see before you die" project, but already the 1950s are proving to be a delightful (surprisingly delightful) decade. 1950 alone gave us "Rashomon," "All about Eve," and "Sunset Blvd.," three of my favorites - endlessly recommendable.

My first Robert Bresson, however, did not inspire such delight - nor, I think, did it attempt to. The label "Journal d'un Cure de Campagne," or "Diary of a Country Priest," provides a fairly complete description of the film that bears its name. It is an exercise in what you might call histrionic mundanity, a melodrama of microcosm. Taking as its subject a young priest in charge of his first tiny but emotionally rotten parish, the film follows his quotidian concerns, attending the catechism classes where he becomes entranced by a beautiful girl of exceptional ability, following him to the local manor house where the nobles are harrowed by secret sexuality and obsessed with a dead child, and most of all watching him record these subtle, even microscopic narratives in his journal.

He is not completely convinced, and nor are we, that this historical or self-analytical impulse to record is morally sound, being at times a violation of the confessional and at others a record of his own torment, his progress marked by a sheet of blotting paper increasingly crossed by the inky stains of his experience. The priest, in fact, is undergoing a sort of internal crucifixion, suffering from searing stomach pains and fainting spells that keep him to a diet of stale bread and wine, and eventually undermine his character in the community.

This account makes the film sounds lush and riveting, but this in fact couldn't possibly be further from the truth. I don't mean to insult the movie by saying this, for I don't think that inspiring interest was Bresson's primary endeavor. In fact, "Journal" is filled with moments of tremendous interest (sexually charged exchanges between adults and creepy, creepy children, or the image of the blotting paper) but it goes a long way towards characterizing this film to say that after just a single viewing I can barely remember any of them. Our hero walks through his life in a sort of charged daze, which lends the mundanity of his activities a surreal air while keeping them strictly at a distance. Similarly, watching this movie is like moving through a thick and chilling fog, only to emerge unsure of what has just occurred.

"Journal d'un cure de campagne" (apologies for the lack of accents in my recalcitrant blogging program) / "Diary of a Country Priest"
dir. Robert Bresson

In the (aesthetically, morally, etc.) questionable act of rating these films, I have often found myself bullied by my inner snob. I tend to distrust my own enjoyment of a film, privileging my analytical sense that there was something of interest to be found in the construction of the film. But sometimes I find a film both only mildly enjoyable and mildly interesting and still find myself giving it a higher rating (most often ****) merely because it is considered a "great film." This has to stop. I must develop a spine. So I am confronting my inner bully and trying to combat grade inflation as best I can, in blog as in classroom. I know, giving a film ***1/2 instead of **** is hardly the bold gesture of the revolutionary, but baby steps, baby steps. It is hard to resist the inner bully. She is mean, with a tendency to throw my cultural chops into doubt.

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