Diary of a Country Priest - Journal d'un Curé de campagne - Robert Bresson - Claude Laydu - close-up

Diary of a Country Priest
1951, directed by Robert Bresson

Only a hard-hearted viewer, it seems, would take sides against the young country priest in Bresson’s 1951 adaptation of Bernanos’ novel. He maintains an extraordinary strength of character through illness, deprivation, humiliation, slander, and rejection. His appearance alone arouses sympathy – two characters remark on the attractiveness of his eyes, and actor Claude Laydu projects a childlike vulnerability. All the abuse he suffers seems to confirm the local count’s remark that the villagers of Ambricourt are a malicious bunch. It might sound perverse, therefore, to suggest that Bresson himself makes a villain out of the sickly young man, but a viewer who pays close attention to the film’s opening line will be prepared to watch a different kind of movie. The young priest begins his diary, “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong…” and the whole movie, if we’re thus attuned to its intention, can be viewed as the story of his errors. In short, Diary of a Country Priest is about a man who is obsessed with an ideal of saintliness that excludes love.

The priest’s apparent preference for the wealthy is an early warning sign. Again and again we see him ministering to the count’s family, never showing the same attention to his common parishioners. It may seem harmless enough when he ingratiates himself to the count seeking funding for sports and social clubs, but in the absence of more urgent charity the idea sounds suspiciously like the kind of vanity project that so easily leaves the church beholden to the wealthy. When old Fabregars argues over his wife’s funeral arrangements, the priest insists on a flat fee for rich and poor alike, certainly not what one expects of a church.

Diary of a Country Priest - Journal d'un Curé de campagne - Robert Bresson - Claude Laydu - bicycle - church

Also suspicious is the young priest’s constant self pity. His diary is full of his ailments, discomforts, and difficulties at praying, yet we rarely hear a trace of concern for anyone else except for the fates of their immortal souls. He passes two bad nights in a row and feels sure that God has abandoned him. He admits he’ll never understand people, and Olivier observes that he lacks social skills, although both of these faults could easily be rectified if he only took others into his heart.

Before he cozies up to the local aristocrats, the priest can’t help casting a mean-looking squint into the manor’s garden at the adulterous count embracing his daughter’s governess, giving us a foretaste of his judgmental disposition. He makes the worst of the deputy mayor’s cabaret, thinking it corrupts the local youth, but he lacks the courage to express his reservations. He finds only hostility and insolence in Séraphita, a little girl in his catechism class who in fact appears deeply fond of him. In Lille he inquires whether his friend Dufrety is married to his live-in partner, as if he’s concerned they’re living in sin. But far worse is his unfinished question to his mentor from Torcy after Dr. Delbende’s funeral: “Do you think…?” The older priest cuts him off, warning him that only God can judge the doctor. Left unspoken, presumably, is the young priest’s fear that suicides are condemned to hell, and it is precisely this hateful and merciless side of Catholic tradition that the movie takes issue with.

Diary of a Country Priest - Journal d'un Curé de campagne - Robert Bresson - Claude Laydu - Adrien Borel - Torcy

The topic of suicide arises in three successive scenes: first with respect to Dr. Delbende, then the count’s rebellious daughter Chantal, and lastly the countess. The scene with Chantal after the doctor’s funeral reveals something ominous about the priest’s character. It’s bracketed by two supernatural occurrences – on the night before, the priest had felt a premonition that someone was calling him, and at the end of their meeting he magically intuits that Chantal’s written a letter to her father. She surrenders the letter to him, stunned by the impossibility of his knowledge, saying he must be a devil. But this is neither sorcery nor a miracle – rather we’re meant to understand, when Chantal confesses to hating her mother, father, and self, that the priest guesses at the letter simply because he recognizes a kindred soul. He too is filled with hatred, which he represses under his effort to live like a saint.

Diary of a Country Priest - Journal d'un Curé de campagne - Robert Bresson - Claude Laydu - Nicole Ladmiral - Chantal

Following this scene with Chantal the priest goes to the countess, concerned that Chantal might kill herself. The countess argues that Chantal is too much afraid of death, and he answers that those are often the ones who kill themselves. The countess wrongly replies that he has no experience of this. Their conversation then turns to her long-standing grief over her lost son, and the priest’s words have such a strong influence that she throws her son’s cameo into the fire, makes her peace with God, and dies that night, apparently of a heart attack. The whole sequence is full of nuance and ambiguity, and to a doctrinaire Catholic there would be nothing offensive in his counsel: he challenges her anger toward God and tells her to resign herself to God’s will. It would be easy enough to put his actions in a good light; after all he retrieves the locket, she writes him to say she’s found happiness, and she dies of natural causes. But if we’re ready to question his intentions, an alternate story emerges. Instead of showing the woman the sympathy she needs and craves, he pushes her to do what he himself is doing, conforming to an abstract model of saintliness that’s at war with life. Instead of reconciling herself with God, she submits blindly to a God she still hates, and, in the process, gives up on her own life.

The priest tells the countess that God is love itself, but his actions in these three scenes deny love. He views the doctor as damned, he shares Chantal’s hatred, and he confronts the countess without a drop of kindness. On the morning of his departure for Lille he notes the crowing of the cock, a detail he recalls again later for emphasis. The parallel, it seems, is to St. Peter on the night before the crucifixion, denying Christ three times before the first cock’s crow.

Diary of a Country Priest - Journal d'un Curé de campagne - Robert Bresson - Claude Laydu - trees - silhouette

In his last talk with the priest from Torcy, the young priest realizes he “always return[s] to the olive grove.” He’s found his spiritual home in the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ prayed while awaiting death. His diet of bread and wine reflects the Last Supper, and the latter scenes follow Christ’s passion – his parishioners’ rejection, his fall to the ground, Séraphita wiping his face like Veronica, Olivier carrying him like Simon carrying the cross, and the cross itself marking his death in the final shot. The priest’s gravest error is that his notion of sainthood is to imitate Christ by suffering when he should instead imitate Christ by spreading love. This is the substance of the movie’s argument, and it’s directed against a kind of religion driven by fear.

If this assessment is accurate, then the country priest’s horror of suicide and damnation starts to look like a projection of his own hatred of life. His atrocious diet, ingesting alcohol and sugar on an empty stomach, is nothing but a long suicide cloaked under the pretense of saintly asceticism. When he tells the countess that those who fear death the most are often the ones who take their own lives, he reveals more about himself than he wishes to know.

It’s important, however, that Bresson’s film does not condemn the priest with the same hatred he directs at himself. It’s sufficient to say that the young man is wrong, and to learn from that. There is no need to judge him. To think of him as damned would be to throw away the entire argument. The movie does not trace an arc of redemption, but it allows him a private absolution at the end, even as his last words diminish the need for this absolution: “What does it matter? All is grace.” There is no reason a loving God would not forgive his faults.

Diary of a Country Priest - Journal d'un Curé de campagne - Robert Bresson - Claude Laydu - Jean Danet - Olivier - motorcycle

In the midst of the priest’s bodily agonies and inner torments, the movie grants him one moment of earthly bliss when Chantal’s legionnaire cousin Olivier drives him to the train on his motorcycle. The fast ride, the open air, and the sense of danger give him a feeling of youth, a taste of what he’s been missing, awakening an unfamiliar love of life. What immediately follows, however, seems to impress the priest even more. Olivier surprises him by saying they could have been friends. It’s ironic and significant that this rare spark of life comes not from a priest or a doctor but from a soldier, someone whose vocation is to face death regularly and often to administer it to others. Olivier contrasts the priest’s fear of damnation with an unexpected kind of faith: “If God doesn’t save all soldiers precisely because they’re soldiers, then what’s the use?” The priest replies that he doesn’t reject the soldiers’ world, “but it lacks love.” In the present circumstances those words ring hollow. When the military offers a truer vision of love than religion, something about that religion must change.


Vampyr – Symbolism of a doctor and a soldier

Monsieur Verdoux – Words of trust in God right before death

Winter Light – Statement of abandonment by God; priest’s faith tested by a suicide; argument against a brand of religion that deemphasizes love; eucharist secularized in priest’s diet or medicine; Christ’s passion as a template for the protagonist’s experience

I Knew Her Well – Argument against a religion that views suicides as damned

The Devil Probably – Main character as a model of wrong thinking

The Day He Arrives – Portrait of an anti-social character who repeatedly shuts life out