Wednesday 28 February 2024

Léon Morin, Priest [1961]

 Léon Morin, Priest remains a fascinating anomaly in Melville’s filmography, considering that a secular Jew and left-wing atheist made this seemingly straight-faced work so heavily invested in theological and religious discourses. Yet, scratch the surface, and one finds its sly, ambiguous, enigmatic and roguish aspects aimed at subverting conventional spiritual portrayals. Adapted from Béatrix Beck's renowned novel, it additionally formed the middle-chapter in Melville’s famed trilogy on the Resistance, preceded by his austere debut feature Le Silence de la Mer, and followed by the exhilarating Army of Shadows. However, unlike the other two films, inquiries into the Occupation didn’t occupy the foreground here, even though they undeniably informed the context and proceedings. It’s centred on the tantalizing relationship between the eponymous pastor (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh of his smashing success in Godard’s Breathless, in his first collaboration with Melville) – a deadpan, charming and articulate working-class priest who’s persuasive in his job as a man of cloak, while also being aware of the impact he has on the women in the French Alpine town, as the men are either away or arrested or have died – and Barny (Emmanuelle Riva, who’d become a Nouvelle Vague icon through her engrossing turn in Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour), an atheist, sensual, cynical, politically engaged and unsatisfied single mother who’s vocally supportive of Communist rebels, dismissive of the church, and bold in her carnal desires. On an impish whim, she visits Léon to tease him, but ends up getting converted as well as attracted to him. Though not one of Melville’s greatest works, this luminously shot film, led by gripping turns by the two actors, made for an intelligent, nuanced and beguiling work in his canon.

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Religious Drama/War

Language: French

Country: France

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