Just as religion has been used as a method of taming the savage human, Léon Morin, Priest – a film about religion, among a bunch of other things - is a meandering, disorganized bit of cinematic storytelling that could have benefited from stricter discipline. Set in a small town in the French Alps during WWII, Jean-Pierre Melville’s clunky opus seems to want to tackle all the big mysteries of existence at once, before finally settling into a modest groove that ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. Léon Morin, Priest is a film of promising and thematically ambitious exposition. But it fails to deliver any measure of catharsis or clarity; in fact, it seems smugly satisfied by its failure.
The film opens as a rather flabby looking Italian Army unit arrives to occupy the village. Clad in what must be the most unintimidating uniforms in military history – in lieu of helmets, the men wear homburgs adorned with long, floppy feathers – making the soldiers look more like an enthusiastic bird watching club than any sort of organized militia. Their arrival is duly noted by a young widow named Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), who serves as the film’s narrator and co-protagonist although, awkwardly, the story will eventually shift to an omniscient point-of-view. Barny, an avowed Communist, has been relocated to the village from
by her employer, a bustling correspondence school that has elected to flee the French capital for the war’s duration. Paris
The free thinking Barny has developed a Sapphic crush on her immediate supervisor, a willowy beauty named Sabine (Nicole Mirel) whose eyebrows arch up like thinly disguised devil horns – for an atheist, Melville loved to play with religious symbols – and, in a fit of Parisian snobbery, Barny decides to attend confession at the local church and boldly declare her feelings. She also plans to unleash a bitter storm of Marxist theory on her unsuspecting confessor, once and for all unmasking the entrenched religious hypocrisy of the hayseeds in her midst. But to Barny’s surprise, the priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young, handsome fellow with a mind as fit as his athletic build. He matches Barny’s arguments word for word, and seems to have a compelling counter-case to all of them. With their debate at a stalemate, Barny and the Priest agree to meet in his office on Wednesday nights, for lively philosophical discussions and bit of unstated sexual tension.
It is in these scenes that Léon Morin, Priest achieves a bit of loft, as the verbal sparring is laced with both romantic and intellectual intrigue. As Barny ascends the steep stairs to Morin’s quarters, viewers get a palpable sense of her entrance into a alien yet welcoming domain, a safe haven from the cares of war and Earthly existence. Melville creates an effective parallel between faith and sexuality, and the value of each as an escape mechanism. Morin’s arguments that the love of an unseen God and the love of a human stranger result from similar impulses deeply resonate with Barny. Before long she begins to confuse the two sensations as well, and eventually experiences a conversion based more on lust than liturgy.
If Melville had retained this relatively narrow focus, Léon Morin, Priest might have emerged as a slight but profound drama. But instead he ventures down a number of narrative paths, with lots of mood killing distractions and confusing dead ends along the way. The Italian occupiers are soon replaced by a German regiment, but their grip on the village doesn’t seem any more malevolent. Resistance members come out of hiding and attend baptisms at the church, then simply walk down the street in broad daylight and return to their secret hideouts, apparently no worse for wear. Barny’s 5-ish daughter (Chantal Gozzi ) develops a special – and quite creepy - friendship with a German sergeant that never goes anywhere, but perhaps that’s a blessing. For reasons never explained, Barny attempts a surrogate seduction of Morin by bringing two coworkers (Irene Trunc and Monique Hennesey) to visit him, but these dim floozies are easily brushed aside. And except for a lightly scribbled “Juden” on the occasional background wall, there’s little to indicate that this is a village under siege, and the sleepy rhythms of small time life continue unabated.
The film’s paunchiness is quite surprising considering the taut storytelling of Melville’s popular crime dramas. While attributed with adopting American Film Noir to Europe, the influence flowed both ways, as Melville’s raw, gritty late 60s - early 70s shoot’em ups were stylistically copied by several
Hollywood films of the period. His last two films, Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic were both impressive exercises in gripping hard-boiledness, with the latter even surviving a laughably botched helicopter special effects sequence – filmed in unconvincing miniature, the resulting tableau looked like something from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood – to remain an engrossing entertainment. But this commitment to crystal coherence is sadly lacking in Léon Morin, Priest. Melville attempted to tell a sprawling story of life under occupation – his first cut ran well over 3 hours – but buried in his mountain of celluloid was a deeply affecting story of forbidden love that made the WWII elements clumsy impedimenta. The sensual chemistry between Riva and Belmondo does manage to bubble to the surface despite Melville’s layers of clutter, but it shouldn’t have to work this hard.