A Cinema of God’s Grace

Let me state it simply and directly: the films of director Robert Bresson are by far the most Catholic in the history of cinema. Fortunately for serious students of film, but unfortunately for moviegoers whose experience of cinema is largely confined to blockbusters, the French director’s work is as aesthetically rewarding as it is demanding and difficult to appreciate.

In 1943 Bresson met the Dominican priest, R. L. Bruckberger, who wanted to make a film about the Sisters of Bethany who worked with girls from prisons and reformatories. Eventually Bresson was chosen to direct Les Anges du peche (The Angels of Sin, 1943). From that film to his last film, L’Argent (Money, 1983), Bresson, now eighty-nine years of age, made a total of only thirteen films. None of Bresson’s films have broken box office records. But in terms of critical acclaim Bresson is judged among the giants of cinema.

Bresson’s use of the film medium compares and contrasts interestingly with other highly acclaimed directors. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Bresson produces what has been called “pure cinema,” using ingredients that are unique to film—camera position and shots, lighting, editing, music—to create cinematic art. Bresson has said that a film is not a spectacle but preeminently a matter of style.

Like fellow Catholic director Alfred Hitchcock, Bresson minimizes the role of the actor. The French director has said, “An actor, even (and above all) a talented actor gives us too simple an image of a human being, and therefore a false image.”

Like Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buriuel, and Ingmar Bergman, Bresson focuses on personal loneliness. But unlike Antonioni, who opts for a kind of hopelessness, or Buriuel who favors psychological release, or Bergman, who sees fleeting acts of human love as the only salvation possible, Bresson offers what might be called a phenomenology of God’s grace.

Bresson’s most famous film is Le Journal d’un cure de campagne (The Diary of a Country Priest, 1951). This is one of the few examples of a film being as good as the literary masterpiece upon which it is based. Achieving a marvelous marriage between the medium and the message, Bresson with a judicious use of close-ups and excellent editing has created a movie mosaic of Christ’s Passion relived by the country priest of Bernanos’s great novel.

Andre Bazin’s analysis of the film in volume one of What Is Cinema? (Berkeley, 1967) is considered by some to be the finest essay ever written about film. Bazin points out that in The Diary of a Country Priest what we are asked to look for on the faces of the characters is a “condition of soul, the outward revelation of an interior destiny.” And so it is quite fitting that close-ups of the young priest resemble paintings and icons we have seen of Jesus because the priest is reliving the Holy Passion.

Bazin notes, “The transcendence of the Bernanos-Bresson universe is not the transcendence of destiny as the ancients understood it, . . . but the transcendence of grace which is something each of us is free to refuse.” Bresson’s masterly filming of the young priest’s acceptance of grace may make The Diary of a Country Priest the greatest of all religious films.

The theme of grace as freeing appears in other Bresson films though only indirectly in Au Hasard, Baltazar (1966). Here Bresson contrasts the environment of animals, from which God’s providence is absent, with the world of persons in which acceptance or of God’s grace is central to the meaning of personal existence.

In Un Condamne a mort s’est echappe (A Man Escaped, 1956), whose subtitle is The Spirit Breathes Where It Will, Bresson uses a prison as a metaphor for imprisonment in the world and dramatizes the freedom of human person and the providence of God. Bresson said of the film, “I would like to show this miracle: an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens and causing such and such a thing to succeed for one and not for another. . . . The film is a mystery. The Spirit breathes where it will.”

In The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Mouchette (1967), also based on a Bernanos novel, and Une Femme douce (A Gentle Creature, 1969), based on a Dostoevsky story, Bresson explores the human experience of the finitude of the world, an unbearable experience for the three heroines who seek freedom and God by escaping from the world. In Quatre Nuits d’un riveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971), also based on a Dostoevsky story, Bresson focuses on the supernatural dimension of human relationships. Critic Roger Greenspun wrote that it was a “fond sidelong glance of an artist whose eye is normally fixed on eternity.”

In Lancelot du lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974) Bresson uses the disordered and destructive love of Lancelot and Guinevere as a warning against romantic love that forgets God. The closing shots of a riderless horse galloping through the forest provides a chilling visual comment on the self-destruction to which selfish romanticism can lead. In L’Argent (1983) Bresson uses his opening shots of an ATM machine to suggest a tabernacle, visually foreshadowing his reflection on the love of money and spiritual bankruptcy.

Bresson has said that he wanted his films to make perceptible to an audience a feeling of a person’s soul and also the presence of God. Though the themes of Bresson’s films can be clearly discussed, a viewing of the films is demanding. Film critic Susan Sontag has correctly characterized Bresson’s art as not permitting easy gratification. His art imposes a discipline on the audience that postpones emotional gratification but ultimately provides a deeper and richer satisfaction.

For those who want Catholic films that embody the highest degree of intelligence and spiritual insight, Bresson’s works are unsurpassed.


  • Rev. Robert E. Lauder

    Rev. Robert E. Lauder is a Brooklyn diocesan priest and professor of philosophy at St. John's University, Jamaica, New York.

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