Updated at * below…
Jean-Pierre Melville, whose well-regarded noir gangster film are on every Francophile or film-buff’s list of must-sees, also crafted a trio of hard-edged films set in war time France, more specifically in the resistance culture. The Silence of the Sea (1949) was the first (reviewed here), showing a months-long billeting of a German officer who was received with total silence by his French “hosts.” Army of Shadows (1969) (reviewed here) went directly into a resistance cadre and looked at, not the daring raids and escapes, but the small details of their tension fraught existence.
Leon Morin, Priest, (1961) was the center film of the three. Made 16 years after the end of the war, and built from a Prix Goncourt winninng novel by Beatrix Beck (translated to English as The Passionate Heart,) it is less evidently about resistance itself than about life in a small town where some have Vichy sympathies and some are familes from which resistance men are often absent.
The heart of the movie, however, is a long tentating encounter between a lapsed communist woman, Barney (the marvelous Emmanuelle Riva of Hiroshima Mon Amour) with the only man in town, the young, virile, sure of himself Jean-Paul Belmondo as Leon Morin, Priest. His charms are obvious to many in the mostly female town and they find reasons to go to him for spiritual guidance. There is no wink and a nudge here, however. They come in, get a listen, a lesson, a few homilies and depart, having had their moment. One even declares she will “have” him. She fails with a sharp admonishment. Barny however is different.
She goes at first, it seems, simply to have a go at a priest, to challenge his certainty, the ridiculousness of faith in a time of war.
“Religion is the opium of the people,” are her first words. With complete calm he replies “Not exactly. It’s been diluted by the bourgeoisie in its own interests.” He goes on to instruct her that “A Catholic worker who has taken communion will continue the strike with more zeal,” and that “Injustice fills a Christian heart with horror.”
When she asks for proof of God he says that belief in god isn’t a matter of scientific proof ”When you love someone you love without proof. The same goes for faith: a moral certainty.”
She rejoins that his idea makes no sense. ”We love without proof, but it’s thanks to love that we know this person exists…”
Recognizing her intellectual strengths he responds by turning her questions back on herself, and offering her heavy tomes of theology — nothing platitudinous for her. She accepts the challenge and so the meetings begin. His control of the meetings is assured, manly and appropriately patronizing. She returns again and again. Attention paid is attention desired. Not only is his theology interesting, he is on the right side of the partisans. He gives fleeing Jews a night on his floor, without question, night after night.
The sexual tension reveals itself slowly but unmistakably, beginning with Barny’s obvious and stated attraction to her female boss… lingering looks and near proximity… She reveals this to him early into their meetings, as if obliquely countering his theological challange with her erotic one: I desire this woman; convert me.
Melville doesn’t seem to draw an equation of natural affinity, as others of the period have, between the communists and the radical Catholics. Despite the priest’s sympathies, Catholics in France were divided as to support or opposition to the Nazi occupation, with organizations like Action Française, a long time monarchist, anti-semetic association of Catholics, was visible and influential among the faithful.
Oddly to me, Melville, devotes a lot of his 117 minutes to very serious discussion about God and existence but only briefly touches on the war, the killing, the deportation of radicals and Jews to their unknown, but feared, fates.
The opening of a march of an Italian Alpine regiment is meant to seem silly. The townspeople suppress their smiles. If this is war, why should we worry? Soon enough the Italians are replaced by Germans, but they leave the citizens — almost all women– alone. Barney and some friends have their children quickly baptized to cover half-Jewish or communist antecedents. Barney asks one of the women how she feels with her Vichy sentiments; another swings her hips while saying the Germans will be no problem at all.
The book itself, from comments I’ve read*, is much richer in details of a culture of resistance, though the relationship between priest and parishioner is still central. Apparently Melville too had a longer director’s cut in which much more was made of the context in which the “battle” took place. He cut it at the insistance of the producer, interested himself in reaching a wider audience and leaving the tiny world of “auteur” films . He succeeded. Leon Morin, Priest was a great success. At least one critic has pointed to its role, along with other films of the era, of converting the shame-faced view of the French as collaborators into a mythology that almost all were in, or supported, the Resistance.
If you have hidden feelings about romance with priests, this is the film for you. Young, dark and handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo in a collar! What could be more exciting? And, spoiler alert, the culmination is not of the fantasy kind. As a honest, if not deep, look at war-time village France outside of Paris, this is one of the few movies available and worth it for that. Jean-Pierre Melville, of course, is always worth watching, here mid-way in his career and fusing his early New Wave style with the noirish look of the American gangster films he loved.
For another review, praising with some caveats, see Gary Indiana, here.
* I’ve since read Beatrix Beck’s “The Passionate Heart” in Constantine Fitz Gibbon’s 1953 translation and I have to say the movie very accurately represents the book, and the concerns within. Though to my eye, there is less evidence of the priest’s toying with Barney in the novel than in the film. It is her passionate heart that is the subject of the book, first for Sabine — a Jew, in occupied France– then for the priest, and even for the excitement of war:
“I can’t help it – whenever I hear that noise it makes me wild with joy. Even if I don’t know what’s happening, even if I can’t hope it’s the Resistance. I try to tell myself that people are dying tragically, but it makes no difference; the more I tell myself that, the happier I feel. As soon as the bangs start I want to be there, not for any reason, just for fun.
She is, in modern parlance, somewhat of an adrenaline junky.
But there is a true confluence of interests between priest and woman– in the poor, the oppressed, those fighting for justice.
A friend, Christine, tells Barney that Father Morin has told her “she should imitate the simple style of the Communist women” in hair style and goes on to say, “You’ve Bolshivized him good and proper.” Barney replies,
It’s the other way around; it’s he who is turning me into a Communist. I told him my mother disapproved of the young Communists because they give themselves before they’ve made anything of themselves. He said, “They’re right. It’s by giving oneself that one makes something of oneself.”
In a normal world they would be a couple but it is not a normal world and the author is not going to give Father Morin the anticipated romantic ending, the priest succumbing to human love and justifying it as God’s will. Whatever he may truly wish, and it’s painted in very subtle colors, with his visiting her at her house, being a father figure to her little girl, doing chores in the kitchen, he is not going to yield.
As the movie portrays for the most part honestly, the tension is not sexual temptation working on both, but in her own striving to understand the Christ the priest is calling her to. She is not arguing with him in order to be near him, but to understand her own religious feelings, and rebellion.
Was this masochism, or was it a soaring of my soul toward purification and expiation, the joy of being pierced through and through?
In this case it’s religion as erotic feeling, but Beck is concerned with the quest for religious authenticity in war-time and in temptation.
She also lets us see much more of the war than Melville did, at least in the cut available to us. There are shootings, executions after liberation, a barracks blown up, sniping from the church belfry. There is a nod to war-time hunger and the presence of a black market. In the beginning, when the Italian soldiers are the object of mockery and humor, the novel adds a touch of real-war:
“…a child of five or six had mocked the soldiers, like everybody else. An Italian had thrown a grenade at him. The child, blinded and with half his face blown away, had died in a few minutes. ..What made the whole story comical was the child was Italian.”
A Passionate Heart is an interesting, though not vital novel of the time. Good reading for those interested in war-time France, the resistance, women without men in such conditions, and of course for those immersed in questions of faith and the world: what makes a good Catholic? How does she behave in the storms of her own human nature?