Ingmar Bergman didn’t direct Diary of a Country Priest, but he may as well have. The bleakest of the bleak, this film follows the titular country priest (Claude Laydu) as he works in a remote French village spreading the Good Word to the locals. The problem is they pretty much want nothing to do with him. Shunned by the townspeople and fearful that he isn’t doing God’s work properly, the priest is also so sickly he can eat nothing but hard bread that has soaked in wine, and he has little to do but spend the days in his freezing cabin, alone. Such is the content of the priest’s diary, though a few encounters with the living promise to stir up some excitement.
Our priest is not only wracked with physical illness, he worries endlessly about his acceptance in the village, about God, about everything. His brow is constantly furrowed, and for good reason — the stand-offish treatment he receives is killing him, as director Robert Bresson presents a hopeless message that says all things will stay the same. One man can’t change society, but society can certainly do a number on the man.
The film makes me think of the philosophical works of Kierkegaard, an existentialist who essentially said that no matter what we do, it isn’t going to be good enough for God, but you’d better try your hardest to be a good person anyway, just try and ignore that gnawing in your stomach as you go about your business. Priest actually takes that notion to extremes: Our hero can’t eat, he’s so guilt-ridden over God.
There’s alas no light at the end of the tunnel for our hero, though at least he does manage to get out of that wretched village. But Bresson isn’t really trying to tell us we can escape the crush of society; he’s just saying we can trade one form of hell for another. This kind of movie’s been made before countless times (Barton Fink springs to mind, with the idea of hell on earth being taken to its literal extreme), and it’s too bad that Bresson pads the middle with hair-tearing squabbles with the locals, none of whom manage to build a memorable character, and repetitive diary entries. Bresson is not terribly subtle about his message, either, but even if you dig the physical sickness as metaphor for spiritual sickness bit, you’ll grok this fully within 10 minutes of the start of the film. The rest of the time we’re just waiting for the priest to meet his end, one way or another.
The ubiquitous Peter Cowie offers a commentary on the film in its new Criterion DVD release.
Aka Journal d’un curé de campagne .