The odds are against the young priest (Laydu) from the start. Though this devout cleric arrives at his new rural post with a hopeful flourish---"My first parish," he says cheerily in voiceover (omnipresent throughout)---it isn't long before the sight of a couple embracing lustfully at the gates brings him crushingly back down to earth. Spreading the gospel isn't easy in Robert Bresson's severe masterpiece, which is being revived by Rialto Pictures in a restored, resubtitled print.
Adapted from an acclaimed French novel and directed like a grimmer-than-grim passion play, this is the film that inaugurated the influential Bressonian style (a cast composed primarily of nonprofessionals; narrative, visuals and soundtrack pared down to the barest essentials). Hereafter, the writer-director's name would be synonymous with the term austere, and fittingly, there's not one wasted gesture. The man at the center of the action is unexceptional in almost every way, weak of spirit and of body (his face bears a constant deathly pallor). Even when he appears to be making headway---as when he offers life-changing guidance to a distressed parishioner at a nearby chateau---tragedy inevitably strikes. Yet with every grueling step (and ready yourself, there are many arduous trials to face), enlightenment does seem slightly more in reach. When the moment of illumination arrives, the full scope of the film's brilliance hits you with the force of a knockout punch.