Léon Morin, prêtre

 (Jean-Pierre Melville, France/Italy, 1961) 129 minutes


Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Producers: Georges de Beauregard,
  Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville,
  based on the novel by Béatrice Beck
Cinematography: Henri Decae
Editor: Jacqueline Meppiel
Music: Martial Solal
Jean-Paul Belmondo (Léon Morin)
Emmanuelle Riva (Barny)
Irène Tunc (Christine Sangredin)
Nicole Mirel (Sabine Levy)
Gisèle Grimm (Lucienne)
Marco Behar (Edelman)
Monique Bertho (Marion)
Marc Heyraud (Anton)

Reviews and notes

1961 Venice, London
2008 Mar del Plata, Torino

Melville was one of cinema’s great modernists, a true French independent and forerunner to the New Wave. In Léon Morin, Priest, he took two actors associated with the New Wave – Jean-Paul Belmondo of Breathless and Emmanuelle Riva of Hiroshima, mon amour – and, paradoxically, created a film that has more ties to Robert Bresson than to Bob le flambeur. Casting the boyish Belmondo as a priest with a missionary bent is one of the intriguing ambiguities of this film. Riva is a Communist drawn to the cleric and, through desire, into an attempt at religious conversion. The spiritual desolation wrought by the Occupation has rarely been so sensitively delineated as in this portrait of a town suddenly exposed to its underlying social disarray. The vigor of Melville’s filmmaking, from crane shots and quick pans to caressing close-ups of obscure objects of desire, gives this contemplative film a thrilling beauty.
- Judy Bloch, Pacific Film Archive

Although Jean-Pierre Melville has pointed out that he is not a Christian, his direction of Léon Morin, Priest has resulted in a film of Christian sentiments and one that should interest people of any religion. It is a film of argument, taken from a book by Beatrice Beck which is apparently a factual account of a religious conversion in the course of which the woman who was converted fell in love with a priest.

The story takes place in a French provincial town during the occupation. The woman is a war widow with a child, anti-religious, a Marxist, and discontented with her life. One day, from boredom as much as anything, she goes to a Roman Catholic church, enters a confessional, and taunts a priest with her views. His reaction surprises her. Calmly he offers to lend her books to study. They meet many times and the priest goes about his task of helping her in a manner calculated to break down the barriers between them. By behaving very much like an ordinary man, he is able to reach this aimless woman and show her the possibility of a spiritual life. But when she declares her love for him, he remains emphatically a man of God and despite her emotional stress, she is sufficiently Christian by this time to understand that she must live without him.

Such are the rudiments of a plot that encompasses two fairly complex character studies. Melville has taken time to fill in a detailed background of life in the small occupied town, but the most important scenes consist of conversations between the woman and the priest; and for much of the time there is very little movement. With Henri Decae as cameraman, the photography maintains a rough naturalism, heightened discreetly during the meeting in the cofessional where close-ups and dramatic effects of light and shadow spring naturally from the circumstances. Nothing is forced. Everything looks ordinary and credible, and against this persuasive background the two central characters must, and do, command attention.

The simplicity of the pictures is very right, but at the same time it adds to the difficulties inherent in this remarkable film. The subject is a challenge to begin with, and the lack of artifice in its presentation throws more weight upon the actors - Jean-Paul Belmondo as the priest and Emmanuele Riva as the woman. Together they prove entirely equal to the occasion.

Belmondo conveys Morin's attitude extraordinarily well, coming to terms with a characterisation far removed from the sphere in which he has operated in films up to now. From the famous anti-hero of À bout de souffle to this dedicated, human priest is a giant step which he takes with a seemingly effortless stride. In view of his established film image it is no small tribute to his talent that he can make Morin so real a person. Or that he can indicate very clearly that, while he meets the woman on common ground in their discussions and goes out of his way to do so, his faith and allegiance to his views are so strong that they cannot be undermined in the crisis that develops.

It is much less surprising, of course, to find Emmanuele Riva cast as the woman, because her subtlety and emotional range are known to us and this is a part we would expect her to do well. At the same time, the mental and spiritual perplexities she must express make greater demands than anything she has tackled in films before, and her sincere identification with the character is bound to freshen enthusiasm for her work even among those whose admiration was high already.
- Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, August 1962.

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