Ranking: #111/111

Director: Robert Bresson (France)

Genre: Spiritual Drama

Diary of a Country Priest is a spiritual parable with lots of depth. It adopts an austere tone and relies on natural settings and fairly bare interiors, as is common in Bresson films. A photographer before he became a filmmaker, he composed his scenes and shots with a stark black-and-white palette. His style could be described as minimalist realism.

The film is about the struggle of a sickly young priest assigned to a small village in northern France called Ambricourt. It is his first parish and the village, small as it is, is filled with challenging characters and situations. He is not a strong man physically and his weak stomach can only tolerate dry bread.  Yet it becomes clear, as the story unfolds, that he has unshakeable integrity. The film has an austere beauty and sincerity, almost a purity, about it.

Bresson paints the portrait of the spirituality of this modern Catholic priest with forensic detachment, testing and exploring the authenticity of his faith. Thematically, I would describe the film as a study in existential Christianity. The viewer goes on a spiritual journey with the priest through disillusionment, illness and feelings of rejection and abandonment. In his diary, the priest is open and refreshingly honest about his self-doubts.

The film follows several encounters with various parishioners, most of whom seem to think badly of him, even though he is a fine, upright young man. Through these episodes, we learn as much about the priest as we do about the villagers. Then his sickness worsens. After he passes out one night, haemorrhaging some blood, he leaves the village for the city of Lille to find a doctor. There he is diagnosed with an incurable form of stomach cancer. He visits a former classmate from seminary, Dufrety. The priest faints again. He ends up staying with his friend until he dies. He dies as he lived – calmly. He is shown clutching his rosary, having found peace and absolution. He never lost his faith, despite all the disillusionment he has faced. His last words are: “All is grace”.

Bresson made only thirteen feature films in a career spanning fifty years. He was non-commercial and idealistic as an artist, one of the first modern “auteur” filmmakers. He adopted a painstaking approach each film he made. In some ways, he was like the country priest.  

French film critic and theoretician, André Bazin, rated this film very highly: “If Diary of a Country Priest impresses us as a masterpiece, and this with an almost physical impact, if it moves the ‘critic’ and the uncritical alike, it is primarily because of its power to stir the emotions, rather than the intelligence, at their highest level of sensitivity.” (Bazin, A, André Bazin on Adaptation: Cinema’s Literary Imagination, p.331)