Fractured Compass

June 17, 2006

Bresson’s Chapels

Filed under: What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 8:45 am

European filmmakers often make religious films or spiritual films in a minimalist style. Compare Pasolini’s The Gospel According To Matthew with The Greatest Story Ever Told or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, for example, and see the difference. Now, of course, even Europeans don’t make them anymore. But they used to.
The supreme master in this regard was the French director Robert Bresson, whose Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest), released on Criterion a few years ago, is a good specimen of filmic minimalism. This was adapted from George Bernanos’ equally minimalist novel. Though spartan in its story, non-acting and filming, with hardly any sound except the dialogue and the sound of leaves and footsteps, it is certainly not puritan/ical in its worldview. There is a dangerous touch of cynicism or even despair in this spirituality. In this film, the young, inexperienced priest cannot cope with the problems posed by a handful of villagers (a comical aside, what would he do with a larger community?), but dying of illness, he perseveres in his calling. In the final shot, the camera briefly lingers not on any character but on a cross hanging on a wall. Bresson seems to say that suffering is the essence of the Christian calling and the souce of its redemptive power. I can’t call the lead character a saint, but that is almost the implication. This is essentially mainstream Catholic Christianity though the style is not. There is no touch of politics here (as in Pasolini’s, for example).
The same worldview is sustained in Bresson’s masterpiece, Au Hasard Balthazar, released recently also on Criterion. In less than a hundred minutes, the film covers a lot of territory. It is ostensibly the life of a donkey, the eponymous character in the film, as he is passed on to various owners and ultimately dies. But it is really about people and the pain they inflict on each other. There are hardly any likable characters here but they are all well-sketched. And it is amazing how the donkey, who is almost on every frame, is able to sustain the viewer’s interest as a small world revolves around him. The film is poignant and effective because the lead and ultimate victim is a donkey who cannot complain and, therefore, retains a measure of dignity in the midst of stupidity and suffering. The effect is like seeing a tableaux of human vices that together make a whole, and the donkey’s final, silent death is unforgettable. I hesitate to make the ultimate jump that some critics make – of comparing the donkey’s sufferings to Christ. It’s not a sustainable metaphor from watching the film.
Bresson is not for everyone. Either you like his films or you don’t. Ambivalence with respect to his films is tantamount to not liking them at all. They don’t make a big fuss. They make little noises.
Cathedrals abound in Europe and parts of the world as a testament to religious belief. Bresson did not make cathedrals. He built small chapels whose corners and walls contain pencil sketches, not elaborate frescoes or murals, and whose windows are simple stained glasses. You can barely look out, but you see light and the sky beyond. Quietly.

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1 Comment »

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