A World of Green Trees: Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951)

The priest in Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest", played by Claude Laydu, looking down in his room with a crucifix hanging to his left.

Robert Bresson is a director who does not veer from the suffering a character must undertake at the cruelty of others. This is most prominent in The Trial of Joan of Arc, Mouchette, and Au Hasard Balthazar where we witness some being—be it person or animal—that is beaten under the brunt of some hostile society. Within all three films, each ends in dying or death. No one seems to have any empathy for the one suffering. Yet within Diary of a Country Priest, the ‘little priest’, to which he is condescendingly referred, undergoes very much the same. Unlike the pastor in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, the priest’s faith remains unwavering, as he desperately claims to need prayer like ‘oxygen in his blood.’

The priest, played by Claude Laydu, is somber, morose, and moves about quietly and helplessly. His illness leaves him physically weak. He only smiles once in the film, and that is when he is on a motorcycle. Roger Ebert notes that this is the moment that perhaps rekindles his childhood. Memories of his youth, when there must have been an earlier joy. He has chosen this vocation on purpose, but for what purpose is this? Has Christ abandoned him just as well, as he remains in this otherwise small, petty, country town? Meanwhile, the locals leave threatening notes ordering him to leave.

While teaching catechism, the children play tricks on him and the adults resent his simplicity. ‘You have the most beautiful eyes,’ a young girl says, as her friends listen on and giggle. The citizens claim he is a ‘drunk’ due to his diet of bread soaked in red wine (albeit they seem to overlook the fact that this is also symbolically the body and blood of Christ). The priest is undergoing a stomach ailment that prevents him from eating, and so he gets thinner as the winter landscape grows bleaker. Roger Ebert sums it up well: ‘The priest goes about his duties. He says a daily Mass, often attended by only one person – and her motive is not spiritual. He calls on the people in his parish, so weak he can hardly speak with them, crossing their names from a list and stumbling back into the cold. A local man quarrels with him about the cost of his wife’s funeral.’

In Diary of a Country Priest, the world is one of hostility and petty-mindedness, and the only peace he seems to receive is through prayer and writing the words in his diary. He finds himself continually returning to solitude. No one ever asks how he is doing, but rather, citizens remain aloof, detached, and judgmental. What has he ever done to them? As contrast, the pastor in Winter Light goes about his duties as obligations, as he realizes his faith has weakened, despite his disabled sexton remaining religiously faithful. As I noted in my review:

Perhaps the crux of Winter Light occurs with the sexton (Algot), who is a crippled man who rings the bell before each service. He is dutiful and compliant. He notes that his life has been filled with physical pain, whereas Christ would have only had four overwhelming hours upon the cross. Algot argues that his own life has been filled with more physical suffering than that of Christ’s, and that Christ’s worst suffering likely occurred when feeling abandoned and plagued by doubt. ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ Christ asks God the Father, whilst upon the cross. Yet despite Algot’s pain, he is a man of faith. By the film’s end, another mass is readied to begin. The pews are spare and there is a sense of obligation that is cast over all, with Tomas moving mechanically—cold, detached, and disillusioned by his own faith.

Cold, detached, and disillusioned by his own faith—such is not the case with the priest. There is something said when we witness a person of the clergy undergoing the same physical and emotional limits as we. In Catholic school, I admit there was a bit of gossip involving the nuns who taught us. Nothing malicious, mind you, but we used to wonder if these holy women still underwent the same ailments. Did nuns continue to menstruate after taking their vows? Did they ever get sick? As silly as this sounds, admittedly we used to question this because we thought of them as holy relics. Watching Diary of a Country Priest only puts me more in mind of the separation that the secular feels from the clergy. After all, must we wonder if a priest can feel lonely? Can a priest feel lonely? Does not a priest also need love? This one seems to. ‘But he has God!’ they would respond. Or how about the great artist who also feels alone? We who wish to live for something higher and other—something far beyond ourselves—would we too not undergo very much the same?

In a moment, a young girl finds the priest passed out in his vomit. Not because he is drunk, but because he is suffering from stomach cancer and is unable to hold anything down. Perfunctorily, she wipes his face as she informs him that he looks like he has been eating blackberries. Afterwards, he rises from the earth, dirty and painfully, and proceeds to move. He’s not got long to live. Within many of Robert Bresson’s films, including Pickpocket and A Man Escaped, we are given glimpses into what the character might be feeling as we witness the exterior actions. As example, in Mouchette, we need not be told that the young girl is feeling lonely, misunderstood, and angry, as her actions reveal this. Yet within Diary of a Country Priest, we are given both—we see the priest’s sadness live on his face as it also occupies his words. Even when peeling potatoes, he looks off distantly, as though he is accompanied by some other elsewhere.

Andrei Tarkovsky ranked Diary of a Country Priest as his favorite film of all time. While this surprised me at first, only upon rewatch did I see why. There is a scene from a documentary where Tarkovsky is peacefully sitting in a tree and everything around him is green. Over the sounds of birds and water trickling does he advise, ‘Young people need to learn to love solitude.’ The priest must have also felt this way, as he navigated such emotionally hostile terrain. Similar to Christ, death must have been a relief once it finally came.

When ranking directors, I often think of Bergman, Bresson, and Tarkovsky as a sort of ‘Holy Trinity’ when delving into the spirit, emotion, and mind. Hence it is not surprising to hear that whenever Andrei Tarkovsky made a film, he claimed the only two opinions that mattered were those of Bergman and Bresson. Furthermore, it has been noted that the handwriting within the film was that of Bresson himself—he, quite meticulously, was able to craft the hand written words so beautifully.

The priest’s journey is done solitarily—he is alone, ultimately in flesh but not in faith. Because of this, Diary of a Country Priest should serve as a companion piece to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light since the films are, in many ways, set in similar, winter settings yet the inner compass of either character is separate. The priest remains serious within his vows—he upholds his interior landscape and is unwavering at the hand of God. ‘The young priest’s ideas prove to sustain him in the final moments, but they did little earlier to console him,’ Ebert notes. In the opening scene, a kissing couple notices the priest, which causes them to cease their affection. The look on their faces is not one of shame but revulsion. The young priest’s presence is an intrusion. No one wants him there. The poor priest. If only he, like Tarkovsky, could escape to a world of green trees.

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More from Jessica Schneider: Stand Like Trees: The Overlooked Poetry of Judith Wright, For the First Time: Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012)From Inside The Visual Mind: On Mick Jackson’s “Temple Grandin” (2010)