Review: Diary of a Country Priest
My husband, Mark, and I have been searching for well-made, artistic, and beautiful Catholic movies since we were dating. We have watched our way through many recommendations, and enjoyed a great number of them, but rarely have we found ones as true to Catholicism as the 1951 French film Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne) directed by Robert Bresson. It is based very closely to the 1937 novel by Georges Bernanos, and while I have not yet read the novel myself, I have my husband’s word for it. (We are pretty picky about movies following the books they are based on, so you can trust me here.) The movie is not an action-packed thriller, but it is a story of a young priest’s soul as he faces ill-health while assigned to a hostile country parish.
The actor Claude Laydu, portrays the priest excellently, especially in how he shows the anguish and suffering he experiences in his lonely life. The priest essentially has no friends, except for a mentor priest in a neighboring parish, and not even a name in the script, simply “Priest of Ambricourt.” The story is told from the priest’s point of view, largely narrated from his diary. It is a very intimate encounter with this simple priest as you hear his innermost thoughts. You can really see and feel his loneliness before others and before God, and how he uses his suffering as an offering. It is not a coincidence that the film shows him celebrating the sacrifice of the Mass. Most of the movie switches between him performing his duties as pastor to his parishioners and him writing in his journal and trying to pray. Even in his most despairing moments of physical and mental suffering, the priest never stops seeking God and never stops trying to be God to others. He does not really even question why there is suffering and loneliness, but accepts them as part of human existence. He continues in his ministry, seeking to help others, despite their hostility, and is often at a loss as to if he is helping anyone at all. His fumbling about in his vocation is something very real and very true human experience. Do not we all wonder at the effectiveness of the good we are trying to do? And do we often seek God and wonder why we are unable to pray?
What makes this movie so beautiful is that it takes the life of a suffering individual and shows that it means something. Grace is working in the smallest things, and God has not abandoned those who suffer. It shows how the simplest priest reaches out to God, and does not understand how God is working in him, but God does work through him. It is simple faith that makes one great in daily trials, and that helps one persevere in the great difficulties. And in the end, “All is grace.”
Now, I would not recommend purchasing this movie unless you have a lot of money to dispose of (the book is more affordable), but we found it at a library and it is possible that it might be rented from other places. It is well worth a viewing, and a few days reflection. Just as a warning, it is in a foreign language and it does have subtitles. Being a movie from Western Europe, it is able to capture Catholicism in a way that is quite different from American cinema. The rich Catholic history of France, even with its recent atheist tendencies, has not been forgotten. Catholicism is still so present in Western Europe in the architecture and in the history. With ancestors largely from Western Europe, I have found that by learning more about their culture, I understand more about myself. And the Catholic history is not something that can ever be fully thrown aside. The hostility of the parishioners in Diary of a Country Priest could be compared to the hostility of modern Western society towards the Church, and that is another reason to watch the movie and see how everything we have and do is through grace.