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A Spiritual Style in Film
Fifty years ago, André Bazin, the patron saint of contemporary film criticism, saluted Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest" with these stirring words: "Probably for the first time, the cinema gives us a film in which the only genuine incidents, the only perceptible movements, are those of the life of the spirit. Not only that, it also offers us a new dramatic form that is specifically religious--or better still, specifically theological: a phenomenology of salvation and grace." 1 The movie is widely acknowledged to be one of the best adaptations of a novel ever brought to the screen, but there is an understandable temptation to explain its spiritual style simply in terms of its source, the great novel of George Bernanos. The paradox is that, though Bresson was determined to be faithful to the original--all the dialogue of the movie is taken from the novel--the final work is quite distinct because the director's esthetic choices were made in service to a different form.
Bresson deliberately emphasized the literary character of his material by having large sections of the young curé's journal spoken aloud in his voice, echoing the text or prolonging it in subsequent images. On several occasions we see the school notebook in which he makes his entries, and gradually develop a deep sense of the intense loneliness in which he undergoes his spiritual trials. Sometimes the voice pronouncing the words of the journal covers over those spoken by the curé of Ambricourt, who is heard again only when the journal's voice has become silent. The curé has a dramatic encounter in church with Chantal, the daughter of the local countess; in a sudden intuition he insists that the girl surrender a letter she had written to her father, threatening suicide. Then, with a great sense of inadequacy, he goes to see the local countess, who has become embittered by the death of a baby son, to tell her of Chantal's near despair. In the justly celebrated "medallion scene" at the chateau that grows out of this encounter, Bresson avoids melodrama or pious background music; the countess's long-held personal bitterness does not melt because of impassioned speech: "The true dialogue that punctuates the struggle between the inspired priest and the soul in despair is, of its very nature, ineffable. . .the echo of a silence." 2 The countess tries to respond to the curé's challenge; when there is no answer, she asks, "Have you heard me?" He says no, and we haven't either, because for a moment the voice of the journal is the only one audible. On such occasions, leaving ordinary duration for a domain beyond time, we enter the world of inner consciousness. [End Page 75]
Although it is certainly worth rereading Bernanos's novel for some striking spiritual insights that had to be cut in making the scene, its inner reality takes on new life in this film version. In part this is due to its subtle pacing, with a special pause after the countess, at the curé's bidding, says for a second time, "Thy will be done." There is the sound of a rake, and through the window we notice the gardener working next to a wheelbarrow. In the left pane, we see the silhouette of Chantal who has been listening and now withdraws behind the wall.
Through such techniques Bresson is able to suggest the different stages of the curé's painful odyssey, which end with his death shortly after being diagnosed for stomach cancer. "The spectator has been led, step by step, toward that night of the senses the only expression of which is light on a blank screen." This finds its logical climax in the daring of Bresson's final shot, coming after the curé's "All is grace‚" and which is held for a whole minute: "The black cross on the white screen, as awkwardly drawn...