Tag Archives: Diary of a Country Priest

[Stop Button Lists] Just Going On: Top Picks, 1 of 4

Stop Button Tenth Anniversary Top Picks, February to April 2015

One of the things I really wanted to do with the Stop Button’s tenth anniversary schedule was get back to good movies. When I started blogging about film, I often wouldn’t even write about bad movies, much less admit to watching them. Much less hunt them down. I remember my “review” of Crash, a film I loathed, was something like “Nope.”

Over the years, I have gotten far away from trying to find good films. Widening the net has lead to some surprises, but I missed seeing great films. So “Top Picks.” Items one through 104 on my Movielen’s “Top Picks For You” list. I made it through fifty-two of the films in six months. I’ll be talking about the films in four different posts. The final post will undoubtedly explain why I stopped. The site’s not called “The Stop Button” for nothing.

Of the first thirteen films I watched, I had seen six of them before. I went into five of the films with preconceived notions–I did not on the sixth because I had forgotten seeing the film. But watching Inherit the Wind, Bullets Over Broadway, A Night at the Opera, The Battle of Algiers and All Quiet on the Western Front, I had certain expectations.

I thought Inherit the Wind would be better. I thought A Night at the Opera would be great. I was hesitant about Battle of Algiers, having seen it maybe fifteen years ago; Algiers blew me away though. I was wrong about it last time. All Quiet on the Western Front is amazing. Maybe even more as I’ve seen so many classic films since I last saw it. I knew, from scene one, Bullets Over Broadway was going to be just as bad as I remembered it. It did not disappoint.

Miguel Ferrer, Yasiin Bey (as Mos Def), and John Livingston star in WHERE'S MARLOWE?, directed by Daniel Pyne for Paramount Classics.
Miguel Ferrer, Yasiin Bey (as Mos Def), and John Livingston star in WHERE’S MARLOWE?, directed by Daniel Pyne for Paramount Classics.

The film I didn’t remember seeing, Where’s Marlowe?, I know I wanted to see in the theater but didn’t. I must have rented it from DJ’s Video in Ashland in college because I had definitely seen it before. Not a very good movie. Probably never thought I’d be dumb enough to see it again.

Of seven films I had not seen, I had only had interest in seeing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It was one of those films I always thought I was supposed to see and never got around to watching for whatever reason. And I had heard of Ride the High Country–Peckinpah doing a mainstream movie–Angels with Dirty Faces–I had no idea what the film was about, I just knew there was such a film–and Diary of a Country Priest. Thanks to over twenty years of Criterion announcements, I was familiar with the film and Bresson. I had just never met anyone who told me to watch any Bresson.

The two documentaries–Capturing the Friedmans and The Galapagos Affair–I had never heard of. Galapagos never really caught on–it’s recent enough I would have heard about it at work–but Friedmans is from when I’d see movies at art house theaters. I’m surprised I don’t remember seeing a trailer for it.

The last of the seven–Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, I knew about, of course; I just had no interest. For whatever reason, even though I give Watchman one star, Movielens assumed my high regard for Man of Steel meant I would like Zach Snyder’s first film. Movielens was very, very wrong. 2004 was about the time I stopped seeing most studio releases. I do remember my friend telling me Jake Weber was good in Dawn of the Dead. We were Jake Weber fans from “American Gothic.” Anyway.

A scene from DAWN OF THE DEAD, directed by Zach Snyder for Universal Pictures.
A scene from DAWN OF THE DEAD, directed by Zach Snyder for Universal Pictures.

I jumped all over the place on the Movielens list of 104 films; I meant to keep a copy and maybe I’ve got it somewhere, but I don’t know where. Certainly nowhere full text indexed. So I’m not sure if Movielens estimated five stars for these films or four and a half stars. “The Stop Button” uses–basically–the Maltin guide’s rating scheme so I usually just add a star to the site’s rating when I enter the rating into Movielens.

So five stars Movielens equals four stars Stop Button, four and a half to three and a half and so on. All of the 104 films on the list, in other words, I should give at least three and a half stars.

Looking at the list of thirteen films, Movielens was wrong sixty-one percent of the time. Not as to whether I liked the movie (I’d say I liked seven of the thirteen films) but whether I thought the film was excellent. Seeing as how the Top Picks list was supposed to give me the very best films to watch (for me and, consequently, the site), I was somewhat disappointed.

Inherit the Wind, I remember, was lower on the list so it might very well have been estimated at four and a half stars, which is a “correct” estimation. But Capturing the Friedmans and Where’s Marlowe? I was expecting a lot from those films. Galapagos Affair I thought was going to be a mix of Terrence Malick and Somerset Maugham, only a true story. It’s not. It’s badly done.

Angels With Dirty Faces and Ride the High Country also stand out big time. Angels because, although it’s technically a classic, it’s almost more a classic for its place in time–Cagney teaming with young Bogart for Michael Curtiz–than its content. Ride the High Country is just an odd mix of sentiment from Peckinpah who doesn’t have the philosophy down yet to pull it off.

Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack star in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, directed by Woody Allen for Miramax Films.
Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack star in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, directed by Woody Allen for Miramax Films.

I went into them all expecting something brilliant. I even opened my mind when I went back and watched Bullets Over Broadway again, even though–deep down–I knew what I thought of that film. I even went into Dawn of the Dead with an open mind. Even after I saw James Gunn’s name on the opening titles–having just recently watched Guardians of the Galaxy–and knew what I was actually in for. Dawn of the Dead is one of those “forgotten affections.” It’s an unspoken regret. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it on release, even from people who knew and appreciated the original. But then it faded away, like many films of the early aughts.

Diary of a Country Priest was a weird one because I had no idea what to expect. Like I said, I’ve never talked to anyone about Bresson. I just knew of him. Country Priest is a long, tedious viewing. It’s worthwhile, but it’s long and tedious. Paired with The Decalogue, which I was watching–in parts–around the same time, I couldn’t help but think about how much films have changed in terms of religion. Catholic filmmakers have no problems questioning their faith, examining it, examining its dimensions, drawbacks, place in daily life contrasted against urban landscapes. Scorsese sort of turned Catholic exploration into the preeminent American genre in the seventies and made some great films. But today we have “faith-based” films, which require absolute belief for the film to work, whereas Scorsese’s not interested in the viewer’s baggage, just the film. Country Priest is more along those lines, but Bresson doesn’t have enough of a character in his protagonist. Narrative symbolism and character studies are a difficult proposition. Bresson tries to get out of it by not acknowledging he’s doing a character study. He tries to make the religiosity of the protagonist more important than the protagonist. It doesn’t work. Would I get something more from the film if I had a (1940s) French Catholic background? Probably. But I’m never going to have the experience of seeing it with that background so I better commit to how I do see it.

Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef star in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo for Magna.
Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef star in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo for Magna.

The four best films I saw in this batch are The Battle of Algiers, A Night at the Opera, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and All Quiet on the Western Front.

The best one is Western Front. The least best one is probably Opera but maybe Algiers. So the order goes Western Front, Sierra Madre or Algiers, Algiers or Opera. I want to see them all again sooner than later, with the exception of Western Front because one can only have his or her soul wretched from one’s body so often. Will I see them soon? No. But I will probably see more Huston and Bogart collaborations–I’m actually watching Key Largo for a blogathon in a couple months. So I might not watch Sierra Madre again right away, but it’s lead me to another film. Opera certainly reminded me how much I need to watch Marx Brothers movies. Algiers didn’t lead me to Gillo Pontecorvo’s filmography. It was one of the first films I watched and I was so excited for that one particular film, I didn’t think outside it.

Western Front has not led me to thinking I need to see more Lewis Milestone. I’m always thinking I need to see more Lewis Milestone. I’ve loved him since just after high school, when I first watched The Red Pony.

Alternatively, the remaining nine films do not encourage any specific viewing. Inherit the Wind comes the closest, but it’s similar to the Lewis Milestone situation. I know I want to see more Fredric March films or Gene Kelly or Spencer Tracy–or maybe even the Inherit the Wind TV remake, but I’d have wanted to see all those things, with the exception of Kelly, who I forget I like as much as I do in Wind, without having seen the film again.

Claude Laydu and Nicole Ladmiral star in DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Journal d'un curé de campagne), directed by Robert Bresson for L'Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique.
Claude Laydu and Nicole Ladmiral star in DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, directed by Robert Bresson for L’Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique.

Country Priest hasn’t got me readying any Bresson. I’m sure they’d be okay, probably good, I just need an inciting element to get me interested. The same goes for Angels With Dirty Faces; I’m no more or less interested in Cagney or Curtiz. And Ride the High Country probably affected me the least of the better films. Even though it stars Joel McCrea and I’m a Joel McCrea fan, it hasn’t got me interested to see any other late McCrea or early McCrea Westerns. It just doesn’t get a person interested.

The other films, the documentaries, Where’s Marlowe?, Broadway, the mall zombies… they mostly cause avoidance. Except Woody Allen. I’ll just go on arguing Bullets Over Broadway is one of his only bad films. I’ll avoid 300 a little bit longer. I’m shocked the film still has such a strong reputation. Such a good joke on “Party Down” about it.

At the time, of course, I didn’t think about how these films–collectively and seperately–might affect my viewing habits or interests. I had the Top Picks list, which I thought would keep me going. It didn’t, but it felt–especially at this early point–like it would.

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Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)

Diary of a Country Priest is a somewhat trying experience, as so much of the viewer’s experience watching the film requires him or her to empathize with the titular protagonist, something that character is apparently incapable of doing.

Much in the film is made of the protagonist’s inexperience–something Claude Laydu plays perfectly–and director Bresson does little to suggest otherwise to the viewer. Most of Laydu’s scenes are on his own, writing his account of his day in his diary. It quickly becomes clear Laydu might not be the most reliable narrator of his experiences, which just forces the viewer to have to do more work.

Bresson leaves the viewer to ask all of the questions Laydu does not. Conversations matter more in where they go and what isn’t said than what Laydu discusses with people. Though not many people. Country Priest is a small film, set in a small church in a small parish with a small cast. If it weren’t for Laydu getting involved with the concerns of the local noble, there wouldn’t be enough story for a film.

That tight focus keeps the film distant. Bresson never visibly manipulates the story, just the lens through which the viewer experiences it. Only on a handful of occasions does it ever get truly annoying (like when teenager Nicole Ladmiral confides in Laydu and Bresson defers revealing that confidence).

The third act manages to be sensational and anticlimactic. Bresson, Laydu and photographer Léonce-Henri Burel pull it off though.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Bresson; screenplay by Bresson, based on the novel by Georges Bernanos; director of photography, Léonce-Henri Burel; edited by Paulette Robert; music by Jean-Jacques Grünenwald; released by L’Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique.

Starring Claude Laydu (Priest of Ambricourt), Jean Riveyre (Count), Adrien Borel (Priest of Torcy), Rachel Bérendt (Countess), Nicole Maurey (Miss Louise), Nicole Ladmiral (Chantal), Martine Lemaire (Séraphita Dumontel) and Antoine Balpêtré (Dr. Delbende).


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