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Leon Morin, Priest

Leon Morin, Priest(1961)

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Jean-Pierre Melville made his reputation as a defiantly independent director of cool gangster thrillers, beginning with elegant, elegiac Bob le Flambeur (1955) and culminating in the austere masterpiece Le Samourai (1967), with Alain Delon as an existential assassin, and the heist classic Le Cercle Rouge (1970). But the director, who during World War II fought in the Resistance, worked for French intelligence in London and served in the Free French forces in the liberation of Italy and France, also made three films about life in Nazi-occupied France, including his debut feature Le Silence de la Mer (1947).

Léon Morin, Priest (1961), an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by Béatrix Beck, was his second film about the occupation. The traditional details of the occupation--the physical presence of German soldiers on the streets, the black market, the activities of Resistance and the deportations of Jewish citizens--are in margins of the central story, and that, in an unexpected way, is the point. Life has become normalized, and what a strange, anxious normal it is, a disconnected existence on hold.

Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as the unconventional, at times radical young priest Léon Morin but you could say he is the object of the film while Emmanuelle Riva plays the subject: Barny, the young widow of a French Communist and a mother who sends her half-Jewish daughter France to the country to protect her from the Nazis. Riva's Barny narrates in a pithy, matter-of-fact manner, offering simple facts ("Our city had been occupied by Italian troops," she observes in the opening scenes, and later simply says "The deportations began") with no personal commentary. She's no Resistance fighter but neither is she a collaborator; she and her friends baptize their children as cover and perhaps it is her resentment at having to undergo such a ritual that inspires her, and atheist, to go to confession with the express purpose of telling off the new young priest.

Much to her surprise, the priest is both sympathetic to her criticisms of the church and eloquent in his defense of religion, gently turning the tables in a philosophical debate with his progressive thinking and sympathetic arguments. She's fascinated, and not just by his intellectual capacity. Melville plays on the power of Belmondo, the handsome, young, newly-minted movie star of French cinema in 1961, as a strong, striking, confident priest in a town of women without men, or rather without available men. With husbands and lovers gone to war or deported, there are only old men, children and occupying soldiers. Léon is clearly aware of his desirability among the women of the town and uses it to lure them back to church in private (and, yes, chaste) sessions of theological discussion. He's genuinely dedicated to his faith and his church, but Melville offers hints of his own sexual frustrations. Behind the guarded, enigmatic figure in a black cassock and a serene, sly smile is a virile, celibate man surrounded by desirable women. Is it that he uses his sexuality in the service of the Lord, or that this kind of flirtation is his only sexual outlet, which he ironically uses to sell a message of celibacy and abstinence to the single women of his flock?

Melville's original cut of the film ran over three hours and according to the director had much more of the Resistance fighters, Nazi officers and Jews in hiding (as in the novel), but he chose to cut the film down by an hour and remove those elements, focusing the film on Barny and her immediate experience. Battles and killings are noted only by the echoes of gunshots or far away bomb blasts and the deportations are seen in the reflection of a shop window. While it's frustrating to see only slivers of those elements, it creates a very different kind of atmosphere and sensibility of life under occupation. One of the most fascinating things about Léon Morin, Priest is how quickly the characters adjust to life under occupation, and how abruptly that atmosphere can turn volatile and dangerous. Like those around her, Barny keeps her head down and eyes averted, but that doesn't mean she doesn't see what's happening.

Léon Morin, Priest was the first of three collaborations between Melville and Belmondo and the least characteristic of Belmondo's screen persona. He was more comfortable playing romantic leads and action heroes--indeed, their next film, Le Doulos, features Belmondo in the more familiar role of a rascal of an underworld hero--and Melville had to work at convincing Belmondo to take a chance on such a different role. The casting turns out to be inspired: Belmondo's confidence and sexual presence makes Léon a magnet. All eyes are drawn to him when he's on screen. While the film is full of Christian philosophy (in words and in action) and Léon effectively draws Barny back to the church, this is really about sex and desire and frustration.

It's also Melville's first studio feature. He had created his own studio so he could produce his own films independently but he made Léon Morin, Priest for producer Carlo Ponti and made the most of his resources. His sets and settings are richly detailed, from the bustle of her office (with windows looking out to the nervous life on the street) to the ascetic poverty of Léon's apartment to the noir-ish atmosphere of the village at night, and he uses cranes and dollies for restrained but elegant camerawork. His direction is a curious melding of classic studio elegance and sudden (if fleeting) bursts of New Wave flourish. It's a major stylistic change from the free-wheeling immediacy of Bob le Flambeur, handsome and removed, as stepping back to chronicle a time, until the intimacy of scenes between Barny and Léon, where the attraction between these two New Wave icons creates an incredible tension.

The film debuts on American DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion in new high-definition digital restoration, accurately presented in 1.66:1 aspect ration. The film was Melville's first real studio picture and he was able to lavish attention on lighting, camerawork and mise-en-scene. The clean, crisp transfer presents it all with great clarity and a rich gray scale to Henri Decaë's black-and-white photography.

The disc presents scene-specific commentary by film professor and Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau originally recorded in 2004 for the BFI. She takes on three extended sequences from the film ( the opening scenes and sequences from the midsection and the final act) that run about 35 minutes altogether. The commentary is more general than specific, offering an overview of the film in the context of Melville's career and discussing the major themes and stylistic qualities of the film as a whole, while occasionally making observations on specific scenes and images. As such it's more audio essay than commentary but an excellent essay packed with information and insight.

Also include two brief deleted scenes--one with the occupying Nazi soldiers, another concerning her friendship with a young woman she discovers is a collaborator--and an archival TV interview with Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo from 1961.

For more information about Léon Morin, Priest, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Léon Morin, Priest, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker