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Filmmaker’s realism suggested the spiritual


The recent death of Robert Bresson, the French movie director best known in the United States for “Diary of a Country Priest,” should serve to reawaken interest in his use of realistic style to suggest the presence of the sacred.

Bresson died Dec. 18, 1999.

Born in 1901, the son of an army officer, he was first drawn to painting and photography. He was a prisoner of war of the Germans in 1940 and ’41. In 1943, Bresson directed his first full-length film, “Les Anges du Péché.” He directed “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne” in 1945. The former deals with the work of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany for the rehabilitation of women ex-convicts; the second is a modernized version of an interpolated story in Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste.

Although both were critical successes, Bresson decided to break with conventional realism in adapting Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, which won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. He determined to avoid using artificial sets and no longer drew on established actors for key roles.

Claude Laydu, an unknown who played the priest, was so identified with the part that he virtually disappeared from movies afterward. Paradoxically, a Bresson film insists on the nonexpressiveness of the acting, instead of filming actors -- whom he refers to as “models” -- as they give an “interpretation.” “What I am very pretentiously trying to capture is this essential soul,” he said. His work at first can seem frigid as the camera patiently uncovers the depths of a person without the distractions of his or her self-consciousness. The final result, however, justifies Bresson’s axiom: “The supernatural in film is only the real brought close up.”

In the 13 films Bresson made, it is striking to note the frequent presence of religious themes: “Mouchette” was also based on a Bernanos novel; “A Gentle Woman” and “Four Nights of a Dreamer” derive from Dostoyevsky; “Pickpocket” is a free adaptation of Crime and Punishment; “The Trial of Joan of Arc” follows the actual transcript of the saint’s trial; “Lancelot of the Lake,” of course, draws on Arthurian legend; and “L’Argent” modernizes a short story by Tolstoy.

None of them uses religion didactically. The spiritual suggestiveness of a Bresson film derives from its ascetic style, which he uses to underline the conflict between freedom and destiny.

This is perhaps best shown in “A Man Escaped” (1956), which follows the account of an actual escape from a German prison in Lyons by a member of the French resistance in 1943. The tension is incredible, but Bresson avoids melodrama. His near-documentary technique eventually yields hints of Pauline texts on freedom.

The camera concentrates on the slow process by which Fontaine, the prisoner, uses a simple tool to undo the hinges of the door to his cell. The emphasis on natural sounds increases the impact of a train whistle close to the prison and shots in the courtyard when the Germans execute a prisoner.

When Bresson includes brief passages from Mozart’s “Mass in C Minor” as the prisoners empty their slop buckets each morning, their brief exchanges take on the atmosphere of liturgy. Fontaine’s determination rescues an older prisoner from despair, and his plans are aided by the failure of an impatient escape attempt by another prisoner; finally, he is forced to trust a young prisoner who is placed in his cell at the last minute and might be a German agent.

The discovery of freedom through enforced confinement is implicit throughout; by the end it is easy to accept the film’s sub-title, “The Spirit blows where it will.”

Those hoping to arrange their own Bresson festival at a university or cultural center can rent films from Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago IL 60614 (1-800-532-2387). Facets warns, however, that the available print of “Au hasard, Balthasar” is defective. I hope that Bresson’s death will motivate someone to make a new print available, since it is one of his finest films, centering on the trials of a donkey that many critics accept as a convincing Christ figure.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie critic.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000