Leon Morin, Priest

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1993). — J.R.


Aiming successfully for a wider audience in 1961, the neglected French independent Jean-Pierre Melville (Les enfants terribles, Le samourai) adapted Beatrix Beck’s autobiographical novel, set in a French village during World War II, about a young woman falling in love with a handsome, radical young priest who’s fully aware of his power over her. For the starring roles Melville, godfather of the New Wave, ironically selected two talented actors catapulted to fame by that movement — Hiroshima, mon amour‘s Emmanuele Riva and Breathless‘s Jean-Paul Belmondo. The poetic results are literary and personal; the heroine’s offscreen narration suggests the pre-Bressonian form of Melville’s first feature, Le silence de la mer, and sudden subjective shots convey the woman’s physical proximity to the priest as she undergoes an ambiguous religious conversion. Not an unqualified success, the film remains strong for its performances, its inventive editing and framing, and its evocative rendering of the French occupation. According to Melville, the film ran for 193 minutes in its prerelease form; he edited out 65 minutes, and another 18 minutes are missing from the present version. The eclectic and resourceful nonjazz score is by jazz pianist Martial Solal. (JR)


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