Film Review: Léon Morin, Priest

The full-length version of a 1961 World War II drama about an occupied French town gets its long-overdue U.S. premiere.
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Léon Morin, Priest is not the most inviting title, and its wartime subject matter might also be off-putting, but Jean-Pierre Melville’s quietly affecting film—and Emmanuelle Riva’s performance—deserve rediscovery, especially now in Rialto Pictures’ restored director’s cut, which will be shown for one week following a Melville centennial retrospective at New York’s Film Forum.

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) is best known by American audiences for his gangster pictures, particularly the somewhat overrated Bob Le Flambeur (1955), which put a French accent on Hollywood film noirs, and the later, much better Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). But Melville was also an outsider to the French film industry and had a great influence on the French New Wave, and several of his efforts concern thorny, complex issues not usually addressed by his own contemporaries in their Tradition of Quality epics. Though his overall output was limited, totaling only 13 features, Melville had a steady, understated impact via his confrontation with the hypocrisy of French institutions, religious and political.

It is noteworthy that Melville, a Jewish atheist (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach), would be interested in filming Béatrix Beck’s 1952 novel about a Catholic priest working in a small town in the French Alps during the early 1940s Vichy Occupation. Melville’s first cut of his adaptation ran over three hours and covered many events, but by his own choice he edited down the film to focus primarily on two characters: the priest, Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo, the Breathless heartthrob daringly cast against type), and a young war widow, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), who works at an office job and is forced to hide her daughter (whose father was Jewish). Melville’s final cut of Léon Morin, Pretre ran 128 minutes but parts were censored for the initial American release, which ran 114 minutes and was poorly retitled The Forgiven Sinner.

With the emphasis on Barny (beautifully played by Riva), Melville shifts from his usual concerns with stoic male camaraderie, alienation and betrayal to a frankly moving and emotional story from a female point of view. This is not to say Barny is portrayed in a stereotypical fashion—she is neither “Joan of Paris” nor helpless victim, but a complex individual who openly questions religious faith yet hides her uncertainty about how to react to her personal desires as well as the political realities of the Occupation. In her voiceover narration early on, she indicates her ambivalence in the most provocative of ways, speaking of her sexual attraction to her boss, a glamorous, confident young woman. Later, after seeking out a priest at random in order to overwhelm him with her Communist, atheistic arguments—Leon is her choice—she slowly becomes attracted to him as well.

Readers of Beck’s novel could be disappointed that Barny does not become a Resistance fighter in the movie version (Melville was one during World War II), and that some of the other female characters are two-dimensional, especially the blond vixen who tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce Léon. But Riva, who was heartbreaking in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), prior to Léon Morin, transcends whatever shortcomings there are in the Melville screenplay, including the intriguing yet talky ontological debates between Barny and Léon, which subdue the dramatic tension one would expect given the ominous Occupation atmospherics, notably when the Germans take over from the Italians late in the story.

Melville himself compensates for these minor flaws by holding back any obvious explication for character motivation. Significantly, Barny’s eventual religious conversion is never fully explained: Most likely it is to protect her “half-Jewish” daughter, but it could also be a way to better align herself with Léon, or it could represent a genuine transformation.

Visually, Melville and cinematographer Henri Decae use a spare approach pitched somewhere between Italian Neo-Realism and the work of another French outsider director, Robert Bresson (especially, of course, Diary of a Country Priest, 1951); but it is also interesting, even if coincidental, that Léon Morin was released the same year as Ingmar Bergman’s first film in his “trilogy of faith,” Through a Glass Darkly, and both the look and substance of all four films are strikingly similar. The aesthetic richness in Melville’s production extends to Martial Solal’s subtle score and Jacqueline Meppiel’s unusual “blackout” editing style between scenes.

Riva died earlier this year and had been an Academy Award nominee only a few years ago for the film Amour, yet the accolades have not been sufficient. Léon Morin, Priest is another reason to remember and honor this actor, in addition to its merits as an intellectually and artistically stimulating film.

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