What could a Catholic priest have to say to a Communist woman in a Nazi occupied French town? What kind of answers can he give her in light of that kind of trouble? 1961's Leon Morin, Priest (Léon Morin, prêtre) avoids nearly all the answers you might except and yet feels remarkably natural. With a gorgeously textured cinematography and perfect performances, it's a lovely film about someone's conception of reality being completely altered, or rather, someone whose intellectual conception of reality is brought into harmony with her instinctive conception of it.
Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) is a young widow with a little girl. She's worried about her child because of the occupation. In an early scene, she meets with Jewish mothers and other Communists to discuss ideas on how to deal with the town being occupied. Many decide to get their children baptised. At this point, a simple solution like this seems workable because the Italians who initially occupy the town wear silly feathered hats and are more congenial than the Germans who show up later. At that point, some of the men take to living in the woods as an arm of the Resistance and Barny decides to send her little girl to live with two old women in the countryside.
Barny's sexually frustrated and starts to fall in love with a Jewish woman in the office named Sabine (Nicole Mirel). Leon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) tells Barny it's just because she hasn't been around men in a while and, it's true, there are few male characters in the film. Aside from Leon, there's only one other named male character, Edelman (Marco Behar), her Jewish boss who flees the town at some point.
She meets Leon in the confessional, to throw "Religion is the opiate of the masses" in his face. But her instincts had led her to him because she was already starting to feel the inadequacy of this maxim. Certainly faith is a lot more traumatic in this film than sedatives tend to be.
In Roger Ebert's review of the film he says that the director, Jean-Pierre Melville, "cleverly plays with our expectations." The expectations Ebert refers to are expectations of cinema, stories, or popular ideas. We expect some kind of confrontation with Sabine, with Barny either scandalously falling for her or find the attraction part of a terrible downfall but neither occurs. When Barny has a brief physical fight with a woman in the office who turns out to be a collaborator, ending with Barny slapping her, the woman unexpectedly kisses her.
And Leon doesn't seem to proselytise very stridently. He even admires the self-denial Communism as fostered in Barny's lifestyle. He doesn't blink when she frankly tells him how she uses a stick to masturbate.
It's hard to imagine any two other actors in these roles; Emmanuelle Riva is so clear eyed and honest in her spiritual quest while Jean-Paul Belmondo musters his cool, angry grace perfectly in this context. He's respectful of Barny but also kind of brutish in his abrupt manner, he even, without apology, pushes her when she blocks a doorway. When they talk about the existence of God, he stresses that logically proving God's existence misses the point. And the film subtly bears this out by continually presenting contradictions that wouldn't fit in a philosophy as unyielding as Communism. Contradictions presented subtly by the film but there for the viewer, and certainly Barny, to see; there's the fact that Leon, a Catholic priest, is helping the resistance and hiding Jews. There's the American soldier who tries to extort sex from her, humiliating her in the street, and the Nazi officer who's kind to her daughter. There's Barny's budding friendship with the collaborator and how the two argue frankly their points of view with each other while still remaining friends. All of this could be interpreted as absurd, chaotic human behaviour, but then again, it fits with what Leon tells her about how God even loves heretics.
Beautifully shot with fascinating editing choices that include abrupt fades seemingly almost in the middle of scenes, Leon Morin, Priest showcases Melville's unique command of cinematic language. He makes this a strikingly effective story.
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