New priest arrives hopeful at his first parish, is immediately eyed suspiciously by a powerful man having an affair with his kid’s governess. Every day will be a new disappointment for this young priest until his eventual death. A neighboring priest tells him: “A true priest is never loved. The church doesn’t care a whit whether you’re loved, my son. Be respected, obeyed. Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow.”
But he’s hardly respected or obeyed – people think him a meddler and a drunk, as he stumbles around dying slowly from undiagnosed stomach cancer, tormented by students and threatened by their parents. He manages to reach one woman, but she dies the next day and his meeting with her is misunderstood by others. Finally he goes off to see a doctor, and soon dies at the house of a former colleague.
The priest gets bad news:
Young terror Serafita, who does the priest a kindness towards the end:
I thought of Winter Light when the priest gives a daily mass for only one attendant – the commentary mentions it too. Surprised to hear that Bresson was agnostic.
The local count is the one having the affair (with Nicole Maurey of Day of the Triffids). The priest wants to help the count’s daughter Chantal, whom he believes to be sadly neglected, and wife, who is a shut-in mourning the death of her son. He tries to convince the family not to send Chantal away for good, and convince the countess to open up – semi-successfully too, as the governess is sent away instead after the countess’s death.
Priest vs. Chantal:
More grimly serious than Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, sharing sympathetic doomed clergy as main character with Les Anges du Peche, and more austere than either of them. Won some awards in Venice, while top prize went to Rashomon. Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (Mouchette, Under the Sun of Satan). Lead priest Claude Laydu later played Franz Schubert in a biopic.
R. Humanick in Slant:
Bresson sees spiritual disorder as a disease, not unlike the stomach cancer we suspect is—and is ultimately confirmed to be—plaguing our titular character. Likely to fall ill at the slightest exertion, he has taken to a diet consisting entirely of stale bread soaked with wine. This leads the unnaturally suspicious townsfolk to suspect alcoholism, and in a heartbreaking revelation, we learn that the priest was in fact born to alcoholic parents (“pickled from birth,” as someone tactlessly puts it). Wine drinking is seen less as a habit to be abhorred, however, than as a routine not unlike holy communion, although Laydu’s fasting during shooting adds immeasurably to the priest’s sickly appearance and the accruing tone of his death rattle, and there remains a subtextual suggestion that our physical and spiritual limitations are naturally entwined.
F. Bonnaud for Criterion:
So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.