Leon Morin, Priest (1961)

Review #1,327

Director:  Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast:   Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva, Irène Tunc
Plot:  Set during occupied France, a faithless woman finds herself falling in love with a young priest.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Award of the City of Venice (Venice).  Nom. for 1 BAFTA - Best Foreign Actor
Runtime:  117min
Rating:  Not rated.  Likely to be PG13 for mature themes.
International Sales:  Studio Canal / Tamasa Distribution

Such later works by Jean-Pierre Melville like Le Samourai (1967), Army of Shadows (1969) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) remain highly regarded in the master director's oeuvre.  But it is his 1961 picture, made with a bigger budget than before that ironically charted his artistic decline as a filmmaker, that is, according to the nouvelle vague critics who championed such bold, original works by Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, and more in the early '60s. 

Leon Morin, Priest did very well at the French box-office, with Melville being accused of selling out to commercialism.  But it is only in retrospect that the director got the appreciation he deserved for this film.  It is a superb entry in Melville's canon, but it is also unlike his crime films that he is most famous for. 

Leon Morin, Priest is about the spiritual awakening of a widow named Barny, played with extraordinary desirability by the graceful Emmanuelle Riva (fresh from the success of Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour (1959)).  Jean-Paul Belmondo of Breathless (1960) fame plays the title character, a young priest who shows extreme discipline not to be aroused by her, or for that matter, by any other woman claiming to seek spiritual guidance from him. 

The drama is set in a small French town against the historical backdrop of WWII as the Nazis come marching in to occupy the place.   There’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between Barny and Leon, manifesting through the film's sensual camerawork, as well as the 'advances' each party makes, however ‘deliberate’ they may be, to invoke reactions from the other. 

The most intriguing part is to see Melville bringing in debates on religion and spiritual affirmation, which take on a more intellectual if also didactic treatment, and perhaps in a way also reflecting of the duo’s masturbatory attitude towards theology.  As if deriving self-pleasure from challenging opposing views towards the existence of God, Barny and Leon are caught in an intimate whirlwind of religiosity and eroticism that threatens to tarnish the latter’s sworn celibacy and fuel Barny’s desires.

The whole film is handled with deft skill by Melville, who never for once feels unsure where his film is going.  This is a solid effort by my favourite French filmmaker, a film about the ‘romance’ between a priest and a woman, but without the sex—as temptingly controversial that would have been.

Verdict:  A sensually shot if also subtly erotic take on religion and desire, handled with deft skill by the great Melville.  


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