Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Culture Notes: "Léon Morin, prêtre"

I often think of the Internet as a sort of landfill that periodically coughs up interesting items long buried and forgotten. This week it came in the form of a Seattle Post Globe piece about the screening of a new 35 mm print of a 1961 French movie "Léon Morin, prêtre" ("Leon Morin, Priest", alternate English title "The Forgiven Sinner") starring the sexy Jean-Paul Belmondo as the priest and Emmanuelle Riva as his verbal sparring partner/love interest, Barny. Here is the plot summary from Films de France:

In this film, which won the Grand Prix de Venice in 1961, Jean-Pierre Melville paints a fascinating study of a woman who is disturbed, both sexually and morally. As the film progresses we see her subjected to a spiritual awakening that arises from her physical and intellectual attraction for a Catholic priest. Emmanuelle Riva manages to convey the turmoil and guilt of the young woman’s situation in a very creditable performance.

Barny is a young widow living with her daughter in a small French town during the Nazi Occupation. She is a communist militant with an atheistic view of religion. One day, she enters a church with the intention of criticising religion with a priest. However, the priest she chooses is young, handsome, and intelligent. Far from rebuffing her, he listens carefully to Barny’s arguments and offers a persuasive counter-argument, in the first of what proves to be many sessions together. Impressed by his moral strength or by a physical attraction, Barny begins to grow closer to her new friend, and she begins to fantasise about having a relationship with him.


The themes that the film broaches are complex and not without controversy. That the great moral goodness in a Catholic priest should inspire sexual desire in his interlocutor is a daring move for a film of this era. But more intriguing is the deliberate merging of sexual and spiritual awakening. The young woman Barny is so captivated by Morin’s goodness that she cannot tell whether she is in love with him or the religion he has brought to her.

Melville’s focus is on the interplay between the two central characters, Morin and Barny. The sets are Spartan and often dimly lit, so as not to distract from the fascinating dialogue. The photography is likewise simplistic and moody, albeit with some very memorable sequences, such as the haunting dream scene.

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