Archive for category 1951

Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest)

Diary of a Country Priest

A dreary, dreamy dip into the sad lot of a true (maybe) believer.

I know I am going to sound like a real Pleb, but sometimes I find Robert Bresson’s Hypnagogiac film-making to be really, really frustrating. Robert Bresson’s opaque dialogue is cryptic enough on its own. Uttered by sleepwalking existential French zombies, and it is downright maddening. Such it is with “Journal d’un Cure de Campagne,” a dreary drama about the angsty adventures of a neophyte priest that  I confess I had trouble engaging with. I suppose  there is a compelling meditation on faith in here for those with the patience for it, but that certainly wasn’t me.

That may make me sound like a lazy philistine who wants his movies to force feed him their ideas, but really I just want a reason to engage intellectually and emotionally. Bresson gives reasons to not engage intellectually and emotionally. He works hard so that we also have to work hard. He is notorious for making his actors do take after take after take, until exhausted and psychologically drained, any ability or inclination to emote or act like a human is beyond their capacity. It is a bold choice, certainly, but often a tedious one. I loved it in Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” but found it extremely problematic in “Pickpocket.” With “Diary of a Country Priest” veering in the “Pickpocket” direction and lacking the cinematic flare of other angsty “Does God exist?/What does suffering exist?’ films from say an Ingmar Bergman, I was left as alienated and isolated as the film’s title character.

Claude Laydu plays the titular priest, who indeed has a diary which frames the narrative. Referred to only as “Priest,” he begins working with his first Parish in a small French town called Ambricourt. He takes to his job with an incredible stoicism, dreaming of feeding his flock Spiritual morsels divined from his close relationship with God. Everybody else in town just seems to find this amusing. He teaches a catechism of girls who spend their class time giggling and snickering at private jokes at his expense. Chantel, (Nicole Ladmiral) the obstinate daughter of a wealthy Count says deliberately inflammatory things in the hope of shocking the Priest. His advisers in the priesthood are more concerned with his diet and amount of prayer than resolving the moral crises that he encounters among the fair people of Ambricourt, responding to his complaints and questions with the French version of “just take it easy buddy.”

Despite the fog of indifference and shaky health, the Priest  stays resolute in his determination to tend to the souls living in this country village. His greatest triumph involves reigniting the faith of a mother who had long since forsaken God after her son died. The Countess (Rachel Berendt,) and mother of Chantel finds herself cowed back into her faith after a feisty and challenging conversation with the Priest ends with her throwing a locket belonging to her son in a fire and taking a long-needed Communion. It is the one moment of self-actualization for the Priest, and his crowning professional achievement.

Yet this one good deed does not go unpunished. The Countess dies the next day, and Chantel unhelpfully starts spreading rumors that it was the admonishments of the Priest which did her in. The controversy puts a damper on his already weak standing with the community and a further strain on his frail body. He is given every reason to rail against God, yet by the end of the film, The Priest still proclaims, “God is Grace.”

One of the tricks of this film is figuring out the extent to which The Priest’s belief in God is fueled by a quiet egotism.  Is his vision for the universe one in which he is the arbiter for the faith of everyone in this village? Does his passion bury a chasm of doubt buried deep inside his soul? The ambiguity was compelling for a time, but the film isn’t as cynical as that. It tips its cap at the very end, transforming the narrative into an anecdote about the divinity of suffering . Not that I was paying that close of attention. As “The Priest” was wrestling with his faith, I was wrestling with boredom.


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The Day the Earth Stood Still


A film afraid that “Dr. Strangelove” might just actually get everything right.

If you’re like me, you prefer your Christ parables packaged up all nice and neat in the sci-fi genre. Separated from the narrative stickiness and all-around chaos in the Bible, sci-fi Christ is free to focus on his Universalist message of peace while avoiding the potentially inflammatory assertion of Christ’s divinity and framing his humanist ideals in a modern and more practical context. (Like say, nuclear-threat filled era of The Cold War.) Few films do this any tidier or more effectively than “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” a film which taps into 1950s sci-fi campiness in order to offer a prescient warning against the destructive potential petty human in conflict in the atomic age.

The fear with a film like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is that its retrograde special effects and clunky storyteling will get in the way of an otherwise compelling narrative, but that isn’t the case here. The economical plot, surprising visual effects and proficient cinematography compliment the rather simple narrative. The film wastes little time getting into the action, beginning with several news stories documenting the abrupt landing of a literal U.F.O. on the lawn of the National Mall in Washington D.C. While the ship itself looks like a metallic-version of Saturn floating through the air a la 1950s sci-fi aesthetics, it has dimensions and a physical presence which makes it look more authentic than much of its more recent progeny, like say, the Star Wars prequels.

Panic, hysteria, and excitement all accompany the arrival of the spaceship. The military surrounds it with artillery, tanks, and legions of soldiers with guns anxiously pointed the spaceship’s direction. Eventually the ship opens up, producing a walkway on which an alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) approaches. Despite manifesting his peaceful intentions in very clear English, the situation is tense. This is a moment which has been replicated numerous times in the decades since this film was released, but never quite as organically. The fearful and curious anticipation felt in that moment is as palpable and as genuine as I’ve seen in a film. This is especially true for one nervous soldier, who fires on Klaatu simply for holding out a strange object which turns out to be an innocuous communication device intended for the President. In the aftermath, a humanoid robot named Gort exits the spaceship and begins to lay waste to the U.S’ military, but even while flailing on the ground with a bullet wound, Klaatu retains enough composure to shut Gort down before anybody is hurt.

Healing quickly in D.C. hospital thanks to an advanced balm that he brought with him, Klaatu is questioned by the President’s secretary, Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy.) Klaatu will gladly share his reasons for visiting Earth, but that information is too important to just tell the United States. Klaatu requests a meeting with the leader of every nation on Earth, but for reasons having to do with Cold War politics, this turns out to be impossible. Curious about Earth, Klaatu then sets out on his own to learn more about humanity and to formulate his method for getting his message out to the world. Aftering finding a room to rent, Klaatu meets World War II widow Helen Benson (Patrica Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray), who help him see the better side of Homo Sapiens. Meanwhile, the U.S. government institutes a city-wide manhunt to capture him, so threatened are they be his inscrutable abilities.

The reason for Klaatu’s visit is the chief mystery of the film, but it is not hard to guess what he has to say. One need only look at the amazing regenerative powers and seeming technological miracles that Klaatu performs to liken him to the Messianic upstart in the New Testament. This isn’t a promotion of the Christian faith, but rather the use of science fiction to parse out the parts of Jesus’ sermons which profess ideals to which most humans, Christian or otherwise, should and in fact do agree with, with the added consequence of nuclear annihilation for all should we come up short in meeting that ideal. It is no accident that Klaatu arrives after we became capable of harnessing atomic energy. In using science fiction to secularize and generalize the ideals of Christ while warning us of what might happen if we don’t, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is as prescient  and as profound a parable as someone like me could hope to see.



The African Queen

John Huston has a gift for filling his films with desperate characters. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre featured down and out men on a gold hunt. The Asphalt Jungle has men who just need that one big score to make their dreams come true. In The African Queen, his characters are just as desperate, but in a different way. These people are desperate to do something meaningful with their lives. In this case, it is two people exiled in Africa, who decide to blow up a German gunboat during World War I.

The first thing we hear in the film is a droning, persistent buzz. The film taking place in Africa, the first thought is this noise comes from some insect. Not so. The sound we hear belongs to a chorus of natives, singing a Christian hymn poorly, at the behest of two missionaries. A brother and sister, Sam and Rose Sayer, played by Robert Morley and Katherine Hepburn who wound up in Africa when Sam flunked his exams and Rose could not find a husband. Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) is a blue collar Canadian that came to Africa for work and stayed because he liked being his own boss. When the Germans come, they round up the natives and burn their village. When Sam stands up to the Germans, they beat him, apparently to death. When Charlie returns, he takes Rose with him on his cargo ship, The African Queen. Inspired and perhaps wanting revenge, Rose gets the idea of rigging the boat with a torpedo, traveling down a treacherous river and ramming it into a German gunboat that controls a key lake in Africa.

What follows is a beautiful journey down a river, shot partially on location, in vibrant technicolor. Rose and Charlie battle past animals, insects, rapids, bullets, and a whole host of other problems. As the two take pride in their mission, they also discover the virtue in each other. Hepburn and Bogart both effectively play the type of people who would exile themselves in Africa and find themselves with a chance to finally do something meaningful. Especially Bogart’s Allnut, who appears to have been absolutely beaten down by life. While the two never expect their quest to succeed, they proceed nonetheless. The film contains one of the finest examples of courage I have seen in quite awhile. When their boat gets stuck in a marshy labyrinth, Charlie is forced to get into the water and pull the boat along. When the boat gets through the thick water, Charlie gets back in the boat, where Charlie discovers that he is covered in leeches. If there is one thing Charlie hates, it’s leeches. When the boat quickly gets stuck again, Charlie sadly slinks himself back into the water.

The film is not perfect. Rose’s role in the film seems to be to inspire and support Charlie as he does great things, as opposed to Rose doing great things herself. The film ends in a series of contrivances in which the German’s boat is sunk and Charlie and Rose live, presumably happily ever after. I would have preferred a less Hollywood ending, but I suppose I can forgive it for this. By and large this is one of those brilliantly over saturated technicolor films, shot on location in Africa, with two of the pre-imminent actors in the middle of the 20th Century failing in love down an African river.


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A Streetcar Named Desire

This is a classic. I mean that more as a fact than an opinion. It is has been around and revered for 50 years. It makes it somewhat difficult to review, but for my part, I very much enjoyed it and could see why it was a classic. Hot tempers, shadowy lighting, sizzling dialogue, personality clashes, and the power of self-delusion in New Orleans.

Blanch DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in New Orleans via a series of streetcars, one of which is named Desire. Blanche makes her way to her sisters place, which is a dilapidated mansion in the French Quarter that is split into apartments. Her sister is not there, but she is eventually found in a bowling alley where her husband is bowling with his buddies. They are Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley (Marlon Brando) Kowalski.

Stanley is blue collar, hates being called a Pollack, has a temper problem, and genuinely seems to love Stella. Stella for her part seems to love Stanley, but Blanche and Stanley do not get along. They are polar opposites. Stanley is physical, visceral, raw. Blanche is a prim and proper southern belle, who fancies herself in a different class than Stanley, despite the fact that she is living in his house. When the two meet, it is an explosive reaction of personalities, in contrast to Stella, who is drawn in to Stanley’s magnetism, despite how abusive he is.

While Stanley and Blanche do not like each other (though perhaps there is an undercurrent of sexual attraction), the major issue which leads to friction is Stanley’s friend, Mitch (Karl Malden). Mitch is attracted to Blanch, and begins to pursue her. Blanch, who, single in her 30s, does not have many years left to pull in a mate. Blanch lays on her charms pretty thickly, and she takes it slow, leading to a proposal from Mitch. Stanley does not like it, and likes it even less when he finds out about Blanche’s sordid past. It turns out that Blanch had a bit of a reputation in her home town, and not for her purity. When Mitch finds out, the marriage is off, which leads to a final showdown between Blanch and Stanley, while Stella is at the hospital in labor. A bad thing is implied heavily following the confrontation. (Stanley: “You might be fun to interfere with.”)

I have avoiding phrasing things the way the characters do because the dialogue is so important. The characters are much alive than the words in this post. Kim Hunter’s Stella is lost in a spell of lust from her attraction to Stanley, despite how verbally and physically abusive he is. Blanche is lost in her own deception, repressing the truth by creating a dignified southern belle persona. Stanley is much how Blanche describes him, an ape, and the harder he tries to show Blanche she is no better than him, the more Blanche’s description is validated. Mitch, for his part, is a mama’s boy who is willingly led around by Blanche, but then can’t handle the deception.

Aside from the top notch writing and acting, I was also impressed with the music and especially the lighting. A soft, jazzy tune helps evoke the feel of New Orleans. The lighting emphasizes shadows. Faces weave into and out of the light, which creeps in through windows and doors. This is emphasized more than once, but especially in the case of Blanche, who only goes out with Mitch and night and avoids heavily lit areas so she can claim to be younger than she is. Overall this is a well-written, well-acted drama with more than a few unforgettable scenes. I can imagine its effect in 1951, as a tour de force. Viewed today, some of that effect is lost, but by no means all. A very entertaining and enjoyable film.


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