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The Criterion Collection presents
"What does it matter? All is grace."
DVD ReviewFilmmakers long before Mel Gibson understood that one of the most challenging and rewarding things to shoot is the pure and ecstatic faith of the devout; no preachy moralism, no sanctimony, no judgment, just a connection with something deeply spiritual and divine. And Robert Bresson met this challenge as well as anyone ever has, in this lovely character study of a film that's liable to appeal to you, no matter the character or depth (or lack) of your own religious beliefs.
Claude Laydu plays the otherwise unnamed title character, newly assigned to a rural church; his parishioners are a tightly knit bunch, and this man of the cloth is decidedly not one of them. We see the priest face down a variety of crises—those who doubt his authority and wonder if he doesn't take a few too many sips from the chalice; the charge that he's meddling inappropriately and without authority or wisdom into the lives of those he's prescribed to counsel; a variety of physical maladies, leaving him able to digest almost nothing; and battling with his nominal superiors in the church hierarchy, who by and large don't approve of his character or his professional performance. There isn't a whole lot of conventional plotting to this movie; largely, the protagonist stumbles from one failure to another, but manages to do so while imbued with a certain amount of what we could only call grace.
It's a radical departure from the melodrama of Bresson's previous film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, and it's almost as if he's willfully discarded most conventional storytelling techniques. The priest spends a good amount of time recording his thoughts in his journal, and Bresson frequently goes against conventional filmmaking wisdom, having the priest narrate something, and then showing us exactly the same thing. Perhaps it's because Bresson's visual sense is so acute that we don't recoil at this; and in Laydu, Bresson has found the face of an angel. His sad, expressive eyes speak volumes, and he goes through the story knowing full well that most of his striving will be in vain, but that there's worth in taking the journey. It's a performance that merits comparisons with that of another great French actor in another film about faith: Laydu's performance could almost be twinned with that of Maria Falconetti's in The Passion of Joan of Arc.
It's also physically and technically a beautiful and accomplished movie. In many ways it's a pastoral, with glorious shots celebrating the French countryside; and in its odd way it's almost a coming-of-age story, as the man of faith learns the hard lessons once he's no longer cloistered from the world. Bresson lingers on actors in stillness, or on empty frames, giving his shots a serenity that have an affinity with Atget's photographs; his use of sound is equally extraordinary. As the priest writes in his diary, for instance, "The countess died last night," we hear the sounds of footsteps on stairs, and the metaphorical implications are obvious yet subtle—whether it's the sound of an ascension to heaven, or literally, or death at the door, doesn't need to be spelled out explicitly, but there's an aura of faith and the hereafter that's unmistakable.
The inevitable and necessary crisis of faith pushes the story on to its conclusion, and it's done without feeling forced; amazingly, Laydu's beatific, faraway look carries him through the run of the picture, and we come to have a profound compassion for this devout, suffering, and in many ways deeply misguided young man. The film's profound combination of art and faith make it a landmark work, and if Bresson had directed nothing else, this would have secured his reputation as one of France's masters.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: This is really just a stunning transfer, with strong blacks and nuance throughout the black-and-white palette; occasionally things look a little gauzy, but that seems to be due to some inferior source material, and no fault of the transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Generally a quiet and understated track, so much so that the occasional glitches sound that much more glaring. You'll notice the audio falling out for a beat every now and again, but these instances are just momentary.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Cowie
The accompanying essay first appeared in 1999, in Film Comment; and the subtitles are perfectly legible, but have occasional typos—e.g., "When it's time came."
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsA stirring, beautiful, graceful film from the start of Bresson's most fruitful period, and a disc on which the technical elements could hardly be better. If you've not seen any of the director's films, this is a lovely place to start; if you're already a devotee, at least one of your prayers has been answered.
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