Léon Morin, Priest [1961] [Criterion] (BLU)

Jean-Pierre Melville

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Amoeba Review

Edythe Smith 07/21/2011

Theism has always been a dominating and polarizing subject in philosophy. For the late philosophers who were atheists, their argument against God's existence often clashed with the popular arguments of reason that suggest we all have a soul. The question of whether or not this soul needs salvation cannot ever be answered. Léon Morin, Priest has a character that goes as far as to suggest the need for uncertainty in religion. Without it, the priest claims, there wouldn't be a cause for faith. As in love, he compares devotion to God as merely a “leap of faith”--a belief held by many theists and philosophers. But for Barny, his latest attempt at conversion, one cannot compare the loves of the flesh with that of a Holy spirit.

 

Following the Italian occupation in France during WWII, a small village is now met with the hostility of Nazi Germany. As the German troops move in to capture and deport Jews, many townspeople scuffle to prove their allegiance to Christ. Children are given hasty baptisms in large numbers and the widows of men lost in battle try desperately to stay true to France while deceiving the Nazi regime. Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) is one of these women. Husbandless and with a young daughter, she decides to visit the Catholic church to seek advice. Though she's an atheist, the village leaves no other options in charitable good will. Of the two priests available to speak to she chooses Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a 26-year old man from a modest family. She expects to be met by a man who blindly lays claim to God but is surprised at his complex outlook on faith and his willingness to tolerate her absence of it.

 

He begins to assign her various books to read, covering the life of Christ and religious philosophy. They start to meet weekly and debate religion and its source, with Barny's lack of faith becoming increasingly thin. In-between their time together, with war unfolding in the streets, the doubt she has in her heart fades and she becomes converted. A calm seems to be reached between the two until she realizes that she's in love with the priest. Her struggle then moves from an absence of faith to pleas for Christ to help her deal with her desires and loneliness.

 

Though religion is the focal point of many films, I've yet to see it approached with such dignity and openness to speculation. The film makes the age-old claim that Jesus was Jewish and interprets various testaments and commandments, more so from a Catholic and Protestant standpoint. It becomes an important reason for the priest to justify his choice to hide Jews in his church, outside of the fact that he wants to save people from being sent off to Germany. You find yourself completely absorbed by their debates and anxious about Barny's delicate condition, and the war only adds to that tension.

 

The film does more than grant you a lesson in love and religion. Much of its comedy is established through the desperation of all of the marriageable women in the village. The priest is the only man their age in town besides soldiers from Germany and Italy, and most of the women flock to his door attempting to mask their lust with humility and Christ-love. Their failures become increasingly comic as more women try to woo him. It sometimes seemed as though he was the last man on earth. But instead of being thrilled with the abundance of beautiful French women, he has the taxing task of trying to convert them and lead them to a path of righteousness.

 

For a movie from the '60s it seems as if it was made much earlier, though French New Wave films this early in the '60s hadn't quite reached larger audiences. This of course doesn't apply to the likes of Goddard, who is still the most accessible French director from that time period. Melville's use of uncommon editing and the scope of his shots, both interior and exterior, can be seen in Léon Morin, and they are delightful to behold. This was one of the more exciting examples of religion in cinema. It reminded me of philosophical debates that go beyond the question of God, and I found Barny's unrest over Léon's unattainablity to be very compelling. Highly Recommended.

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Synopsis

In French with English subtitles. 

 

Jean-Paul Belmondo delivers a subtly sensual performance for the hot-under-the-collar Léon Morin, Priest (Léon Morin, Pere), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. The French superstar plays a devoted man of the cloth who is the crush object of all the women of a small village in Nazi-occupied France. He finds himself most drawn to a sexually frustrated widow - played by Emmanuelle Riva - a borderline heretic whose relationship with her confessor is a confrontation with both God and her own repressed desire. A triumph of mood, setting, and innuendo, Léon Morin, Priest is an irreverent pleasure from one of French cinema's towering virtuosos.

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Product Details

  • Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva
  • Format: Black & White, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Rating: Not Rated
  • Label: The Criterion Collection
  • Release Date: 07/26/2011
  • Run Time: 117 minutes
  • Catalogue #: 572

Special Features

  • French television interview with director Jean-Pierre Melville and actor Jean-Paul Belmondo from 1961
  • Selected-scene commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau
  • Deleted scenes
  • Booklet featuring an essay by critic and novelist Gary Indiana and excerpts from Melville On Melville
  • Original theatrical trailer

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