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.
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).