Jean-Pierre Melville's Leon Morin, Priest (1961) is a reminder that there are many ways to succeed in making a great film and that the Hollywood paradigm is by no means exclusive. Leon Morin, Priest, an adaptation of a bestselling French novel about the platonic relationship between a Roman Catholic priest and a Communist woman, has no plot, no rising or falling action and nothing that could be called a climax -- the film chronicles a series of encounters between its protagonists, outwardly inconsequential but of enormous importance spiritually. There is very little humor and, except for the two principal actors, other characters are insignificant -- Melville has cut out several subplots featured in the novel, including those that might offer some suspense (someone is harboring a Jewish child so that occupying German troops won't deport the lad). Although the film is set during World War II, the Germans are shown as gentle and benign -- atrocities occur off-screen. There is no violence and not even the threat of violence; the war is represented by a distant sound of gunfire and some flashing lights at the Communist woman's bedroom window. The only person who acts badly in the movie is an American GI who threatens to rape the heroine -- although, his kind-hearted buddy talks him out of the evil deed. Although the film is set in a lovely valley among the snow-capped French Alps, we see the mountains clearly in only one short scene -- Melville is too disciplined and austere a film maker to waste time on purely visual pleasures. The movie is audaciously sincere, quiet, detached, and makes no attempt to pander to the audience. Indeed, the film even eschews the kind of Jansenist minimalism in Bresson's movies, pictures that resemble Leon Morin by description but that have an entirely different, and more abstract, even, Cubist, form than Melville's movie. No one could mistake Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest for documentary. By contrast, Melville's Leon Morin, often, feels like an Italian neo-realist picture -- the street scenes have an odd and startling immediacy and the classically expressive mise-en-scene resembles the work of Roberto Rosselini during this same period. Leon Morin doesn't have a story, it simply develops a situation -- this makes its (non)-narrative problematic by Hollywood criteria, although the film certainly is successful enough according to its own standards.
The situation is this: a correspondence school that teaches some kind of creative writing has been forced to move from Paris to a small town in the French Alps. The move is prompted by the fact that a number of the teachers, many of them women, are Jewish or Communist. All the men have fled and joined the partisans fighting in the mountains and the heroine, a Communist, with her friends decides to have her daughter baptized since the child's father was either a Jew or a Communist or both -- the cynical notion is that baptizing the children of the Montagnard partisan men will protect them against the German terror. (Although at the outset, the Alpine town is occupied by entirely benign Italian troops wearing ridiculous uniforms and plumed hats that amuse the local populace.) After the children are baptized, the Communist heroine played by Emmanuelle Riva, decides to taunt one of the local priests, Leon Morin, by going to Confession and insulting him. The priest is played by the lean and intense Jean-Paul Belmondo and, instead of condemning the woman, he reveals his compassion for her faithlessness and his hope that she can be converted to the Gospel. Ultimately, the heroine finds herself harried by Grace; although she resists valiantly, at last, she succumbs and rejoins the Catholic church. She continues her close relationship with the priest throughout the Occupation and until the town is liberated by the Americans. Finally, the woman expresses her love for the handsome priest, although she does this obliquely and by way of a hypothetical question: "if I were a Protestant woman, and you were a Protestant pastor, would you marry me?" The priest turns away from her, but, later, returns, only to announce that he is leaving the village for another assignment, one that he finds intriguing because the "local people have not had a priest for many years and they are thoroughly de-Christianized" -- the film suggests that true Roman Catholic spirituality can exist only if the strictures of the institutional and politically established Church can be eluded. The penultimate scene shows the heroine stricken and staggering down the street of the hamlet bereft. The movie ends with a shot of the priest standing resolutely in the threshold of his lodging, the lintel and doorway dark as if to suggest a great, sinister altar harboring Belmondo's haggard and lantern-eyed figure. The film is as unwavering as Belmondo's Leon Morin -- at no point, does the Priest display the slightest temptation, nor does he ever deviate from his perfectly virtuous course of action. The movie provides a spectacle unusual in cinema -- the depiction of a completely good man.
Much of the film is devoted to theological discussion, always highly intellectual, abstract and philosophical. Against this rather rarefied backdrop, Melville provides some visceral shocks: the Communist woman bitterly suggests that she masturbates "with a stick" and, at one point, she falls in love with a beautiful, despairing Jewess whose brother has been deported by the Nazis. Morin is not gentle with his supplicant -- he brusquely shoves her out of his way in some scenes, almost battering her, and there is a curious sub-current of violence in his gestures toward the heroine. (This suppressed violence explains the power of the final shot of Morin standing impervious to all human desires in the fearsome and gloomy tabernacle of his apartment.) The movie is remarkably expressive: Morin's church is battered, decrepit, and ugly -- the sanctuary is filled with nasty-looking little wooden chairs. In the first scene in the confessional, Melville suddenly eliminates the screen between the priest and the woman -- we see the shadow of the screen cast upon her brow but the man and woman occupy the same continuous space without any barrier between them: this is Melville's way of demonstrating that they have become allies. The German occupation of the town is announced by a sinister march -- we can't tell if the music is diegetic or not: are the Germans playing the march or is it on the soundtrack? This confusion imparts a significant sense of tension to the scene of the German's arrival in the village. When the woman suddenly feels that she can no longer resist the pressure of the Holy Spirit, Melville signals this change in her heart with a jump-cut to an unfamiliar angle -- the woman is cleaning out a half-ruined attic. The effect is startling, subtle and non-demonstrative, but, perfectly, designed to convey on a subliminal level the importance of the moment. Later, when the woman confesses her love to the priest, Melville conspicuously violates the 180 degree eye-line rule to show how her passion has warped the space around the protagonists. The final scenes in the priest's mostly empty lodging are extremely powerful -- Melville gets remarkable effects out of a door banging in the wind and places on the walls where pale marks show that pictures have been removed. Melville is not afraid to slow or stop the action, such as it is, for scenes that seem to have no importance at all -- we see an inconsequential scene of the Priest preaching and, later, he talks about his childhood and thrashings that his mother administered to him, while all the while protesting that his boyhood was completely idyllic and happy. Sequences like this, which comprise half the movie, don't seem to lead anywhere; they are illustrations of character, I suppose, but don't have any dramatic force -- rather, they contribute to the film's ambience of sober, close-observed realism. Ultimately, I suppose, this modest, but compelling, movie is about something that a character calls "the irony of God" -- that is, how God shapes human weakness to His ends and creates good from the most improbable circumstances. Truly religious films are rare and this homage to a kindly priest made by a Jewish film maker is one of the best of its kind.