Stuart’s Log: LEON MORIN, PRIEST (1961)
October 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
LEON MORIN, PRIEST is a Catholic film made from the perspective of an atheist Jew. Director Jean-Pierre Melville (the name Melville adopted after his favorite writer Herman) was allegedly drawn to the source material—Beatrice Beck’s 1952 novel of the same name—for its depiction of life during the Nazi Occupation of France and the resistance efforts of its title character, a priest of peasant origin (Jean-Paul Belmondo in the movie, cast wonderfully against type) whose intimate relationship with a communist widow (Emmanuelle Riva, only two years after HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR) is the story’s principal subject. Melville was an active fighter in the French Resistance, an experience that directly factored into three of his movies (often considered as a loose trilogy), most notably his 1969 masterpiece ARMY OF SHADOWS.
But what I find fascinating about LEON MORIN is that the Occupation is a largely off-screen presence which significantly influences yet never directly threatens the lives of the film’s central characters (when Melville comes closest to depicting actual brutality it is at the hands of an American soldier). It instead functions as the pretext for an examination of the powerful connection that can develop between two people under trying circumstances—its gradual formation and abrupt dissolution. The horrors of Nazism are only apparent insofar as they inconvenience or impair the day-to-day life of Barny, from whose perspective the story is told. We watch as she has her half-Jewish daughter baptized to avoid suspicion, as one of her old professors has to leave the country, and as her workplace becomes a hotbed of political disagreement. When she enters the confessional of Leon Morin on a mischievous whim, intending to fight religion with communist chestnuts, she is met with an intellect no less aware of the Church’s classist shortcomings but that accounts for them within a philosophically dense Catholicism that Barny’s hollow Marxism cannot begin to penetrate.
Melville couples his respect for Morin’s Catholic intellect (the same stoical respect he has for his philosophically independent gangster movie heroes) with a detailed depiction of village life during the Occupation (devoid of young men and a breeding ground for boredom) to produce a fertile soil for companionship. As he charts the subtle evolution of Morin’s and Barny’s relationship, played out over nightly philosophical talks in Morin’s presbytery room, he never treats the Catholic substance of their discussions as a smokescreen behind which the complex machinations of desire and romantic passion are taking place. The nature of Barny’s attraction to Morin is both physical and spiritual, and it’s when both her infatuation and newly acquired Catholicism reach their apogee that she must wrestle with separating the two. The intensification of their bond mirrors the growing oppression of the Occupation, such that when the Americans finally come to liberate the village, the two find that they can no longer see each other.
LEON MORIN, PRIEST is the story of an intimacy that can only flourish in confinement. With liberation comes freedom, opportunity, and room to breathe, conditions hardly conducive to the spiritual urgency of their earlier meetings, wherein freedom seemed only to extend to the recesses of Leon Morin’s living quarters. The question that remains at the end of the film is whether the faith Barny has attained through Morin is enough to compensate her solitude without him. There is no definitive answer. – Stuart