Friday, April 17, 2009

Léon Morin, Priest

Barny is widow living in a provincial French town, where gossip is brutal and many women are infatuated with the young handsome priest. They also happen to be living under Nazi occupation. While significant, such political realities remain a secondary concern in Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Catholic morality play, Léon Morin, Priest (trailer here), which begins a week-long repertory run today at the Film Forum.

One day, the widowed Barny inadvertently starts on her road to redemption when she decides to attack Catholicism from the confessional, hoping to scandalize the priest on duty. She chooses Léon Morin because she assumes the young cleric will be able to handle the shock. It is certainly safe to say he can take it, as Morin easily parrying her ideological bombast. He even proscribes penance, which she actually carries out. It would not be their final meeting.

Barny finds herself drawn to Morin, often meeting him in the rectory to borrow books on theology. Despite her prejudices, she feels Catholicism satisfying on an emotional and spiritual level. Then one day an associate states the obvious: the priest is good-looking. Suddenly the nature of her attraction to Morin is inescapably obvious.

Morin is not your standard genial country priest. He is sympathetic to the resistance, to a degree which is probably dangerous, but Melville’s treatment of the occupation de-emphasizes intrigue and suspense. The real conflict is between Morin and Barny, but the stakes are not inconsequential.

As an atheist Communist developing lesbian tendencies, Barny seems an unlikely candidate for Catholic conversion. Of course, as a Jewish atheist who claimed to be a former Party member during his years in the French underground, Melville seems like an equally unlikely director for her story. However, Melville respected Béatrix Beck’s original source novel and was happy to have a chance to direct a film with a respectable budget. He was also able to cast Jean-Paul Belmondo just as his international fame was exploding. He brings an icy intensity to the title role, counter balancing Emmanuelle Riva’s passionate and sensitive Barny.

Melville’s depiction of village life is neither sentimental nor heroic. Collaboration is the norm, as most villagers hedge their bets to some extent. For instance, one woman juggles lovers associated with the resistance, the black market, the Vichy government, and the German military. Likewise, the horrors of National Socialism are never truly dramatized in the film. In fact, one of the few German officers we meet seems to be a kindly sort, who treats Barny’s daughter France as a surrogate for his own child.

Morin is not a feel-good film, but has a truly French sensibility, capturing the ambiguity of the country’s wartime experience. It will frustrate many for a host of reasons, not the least being the cool severity of its title character. Léon Morin the priest is uncompromising in all respects, unlike everyone else around him. It is a fascinating, sometimes vexing film. It opens today in New York at the Film Forum.