Though it may seem like a curious subject to cinephiles who know Jean-Pierre Melville mainly from his coolly Gallicized transmutations of film-noir mystique, the focus on spirituality at the heart of Léon Morin, Priest is something that long intrigued the legendary writer-director. If not religious per se, his netherworlds are similarly couched in rules, rituals, and brutality. The difference is that, instead of kneeling in church or raising their eyes to the heavens, his taciturn characters bare their souls by enduring brutal interrogations or marching into showdowns with empty pistols. Inhabiting these ash-gray zones where betrayal is a perpetual threat, the Melville protagonist lives by unyielding professionalism and precise, loaded gestures, in the process attaining a perverse yet undeniable inner purity—a description that applies to Alain Delon’s lone-wolf assassin in Le Samouraï as much as to Léon Morin, the provincial priest played by a hot-off-Breathless Jean-Paul Belmondo. Despite his eponymous status, however, the main character is not Morin but young widow Barny (Emmanuelle Rivas), who, in keeping with Melville’s interest in clashing moral codes, sees the cleric less as a figure of inspiration than one of antagonism, mystery, and finally, temptation.
Adapted from a novel by Béatrix Beck, the WWII-set narrative envisions life in a small French village during the occupation (first by ineffectual Italian soldiers, then by steely Gestapo troops, then by libidinous American liberators) as an interlocked welter of personal dramas, steeped in potential danger yet sketched with a light hand: Resistance fighters saunter away from their forest hideouts to attend their children’s baptisms, an elderly Jewish man leaves town not paralyzed with fear, but enlivened by the possibility of adventure, and a smitten little girl becomes friends with a kind German soldier. At the center is the courteous but stubborn tug of war between Barny, a pragmatic communist who abhors the “false currency” of religion, and Morin, an unconventional man of the cloth who calmly meets her queries with his own radical ideas and is besides well aware of the effect his sex appeal has on the mostly female local populace. “You completely Sovietized him,” a co-worker tells Barny, though the truth is that the widow is the one being transformed over the course of the film, experiencing a profound combination of corporeal longing and spiritual bewilderment during her theological debates with the priest.
Beautifully modulated with evocatively brusque fades to black and compositions that inventively position characters within the frame according to the movements of their power struggles, Léon Morin, Priest operates both as a faithful literary adaptation and a vessel for Melville’s fatalist preoccupations. As befits a mid-career work, links to the director’s earlier and future films are everywhere: Barny’s sensual glance at the office boss (Nicole Mirel) who exudes “a delicately feminized manliness” can be traced to the androgynous Dargelos in Les Enfants Terribles and the cleric’s austere flat to the inspector’s headquarters in Le Doulos, just as the Nazi-occupied setting gazes back at Le Silence de la Mer (complete with a single-scene glimpse of Howard Vernon) and ahead to Army of Shadows.
It’s in its outwardly low-key yet emotionally charged—and deeply erotic—portrait of the turmoil of a woman’s soul (subtly juxtaposed with that of a nation’s history), however, that the film most grips and endures. By observing a relationship in which a surplice sleeve brushing against a face or a hatchet slamming into a chunk of wood feel like celestial shifts, Melville reveals the sublime stirrings under the tough-guy poses he’s best known for. Comparisons with Diary of a Country Priest are not unmerited, but recall that, when a critic suggested that his films were becoming rather Bressonian, the filmmaker famously snapped that “it’s Bresson who’s always been Melvillean!”
The anamorphic widescreen transfer works well for the muted, autumnal country vistas and severe interiors, solidly capturing the details of the compositions. Dialogue comes through strong and clear in the cleaned-up mono soundtrack.
Sparse by Criterion's standards, extras include archive interviews with Jeann-Pierre Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo, selected-scene commentary by Ginette Vincendeau (author of Jean-Pierre Meelville: An American in Paris), and deleted scenes, all of which offer interesting tidbits into the picture but are much too brief. The original theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay by Gary Indiana and excerpts from Melville on Melville round things off.
See Melville charge a trip to the confessional booth with as much tension as an underworld confrontation in this superb spiritual drama from the Gallic noir master.