'Léon Morin, Priest' is a remarkable film from Jean-Pierre Melville ('Army of Shadows') that was gorgeously shot by Henri Decaë ('The 400 Blows'). It is a film at once about faith, certainty ,and the existence of God while at the same time having nothing to do with the discussion at all. Based loosely on the novel The Passionate Heart — as it is known in English translations — by Béatrix Beck, this is Melville's way of engaging his viewers, with a seemingly frank dialogue that will question the existence of an omnipotent deity.
Léon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is the titular character of this subtly poignant and profound tale about devotion to a belief of the unknown and the strong conviction we place upon it. Belmondo is the perfect choice in the role, brimming with an unwavering confidence both in his words and in his ability to convert others. Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) is the struggling, widowed atheist with a young child who originally walked into a confessional for a laugh but discovered more. Léon surprises her because he genuinely enjoys her company and their challenging conversations.
This possibility of the film being a thought-provoking argument on faith becomes even more intriguing by having it set in the middle of occupied France. But as it turns out, the real heart of the matter is in what happens outside of the conversation and what the two people hide from themselves as well as each other, about the innate mannerisms and habits of human behavior. These two retreat into the safe confines of the priest's cloistered dormitory while civilization collapses and people are abducted on the streets. Although intentionally downplayed throughout the entire picture, the mise en scène is as hugely important as the discussion between the two leads.
The contradiction within the story — a WWII film which only touches on that fact or the seemingly normal, everyday living while under occupied rule — is where our attention should be focused. There's a reason Melville never allows the conversation to be too philosophical or weighty; we're meant to see beyond that and realize society can't figure itself out, let alone discover the existence of a higher being. The narrative still includes issues of devotion to a belief, but on a deeper level, it dares to ask how we can claim to such notions when we are full of contradiction, a difficult abstract concept that exists nonetheless in everything we do and inherent to our very nature.
At its worst, these contradictions occur when we censure and/or criminalize what should be thought of as morally right or simply natural. Barny baptizes her daughter under false pretenses, thinking it will save her life from invading Nazis, and she feels guilty developing a crush on a female coworker (Gisèle Grimm) more beautiful than she. Her conversion (this is not a spoiler since it's not the plot's point) is more out of fear and doubt than genuine belief. It is as if to say she submits the priest's religion not because she's convinced by his infallible logic but because she's run out of anything else to say, something to convince him.
With Belmondo portraying the pious, intelligent cleric, Léon is the more fascinating character with contradictions at their most subtle. Living an austere, almost poverty-stricken lifestyle, the man appears truly devoted to his word and faith, committing criminal treason to help Jews evade capture. But in seeing only this, we forget what the film's title implies; he is a man first and priest second. He talks endlessly of his love to the clergy but complains often about where his duties are needed most. Even while wearing his all-black cassock, Léon exudes an erotic sensuality that attracts local women. Given the way he behaves with many of them, it's difficult to say if he doesn't do this deliberately because he likes it. It's an attribute in his being that even confuses poor, sexually-frustrated Barny.
With 'Léon Morin, Priest,' Melville proves himself an astonishing filmmaker with a brilliant eye for subtle details. He occupies the frame with varied, unrelated images occurring in the background, but suddenly turns intimate when following Léon and Barny, creating a large gulf between their intellectual conversation and a crumbling society. It's would be inaccurate to call the film religious, since it is so much more than that. It places morality in the middle of a world full of contradictions and leaves us with a disheartening, morally-empty conclusion, with the knowledge that we can't easily designate what is right and what is wrong. A Nazi is shown as kind and gentle to a little girl, and a U.S. soldier can act like a crude, sexual deviant.
Staying true to the idea of confessionals, the film is very much like Barny's own confession of following her heart and instinct, only to turn out to be embarrassingly wrong. And we, the audience listen with an open-mind to reason her sins with as little judgment as humanly possible — another contradiction all unto itself.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Léon Morin, Priest' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #572) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 28-page booklet with photos and features an excellent essay entitled "Life During Wartime" by author Gary Indiana. It also includes an interview with Jean-Pierre Melville. There are no trailers or promos before being taken to the distributor's normal menu options.
As is their usual practice, Criterion makes the effort to remaster the films in their catalog from the best available prints. In this case, a 35mm fine-grain master positive was used to make this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.66:1), and it has yielded some outstanding results for a drama now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Fine object detailing is as sharp as could be expected for a film of this vintage, exposing everything from the threading of clothing to tiny, distinct features in the small town's architecture. Textural definition is equally excellent, with wonderfully revealing facial complexions. Contrast is spot-on with crisp, clean whites, providing the transfer with terrific clarity and resolution. Black levels are accurate and richly deep with clear differentiation between the various shades, and shadow details are impressive in the many dimly-lit interiors.
With a thin and consistent veil of grain throughout, the picture quality of Melville's 'Léon Morin, Priest' makes for a splendid watch on Blu-ray.
Criterion has also made a great effort with this uncompressed PCM monaural soundtrack. Taken from a 35mm optical track, it exhibits strong clarity detail in the music and the various background sounds of occupied France. There are moments when the center channel fails to deliver a solid stage presence, but it's nothing that detracts much from the rest of its accomplishments. The lossless mix still provides an excellent sense of space when the two leads interact, and dynamic range displays plenty of warmth and fidelity with a reasonable low-end furnishing a bit of depth. The dialogue-driven drama is also supplied with superb, precise vocals in the conversations, making every emotional inflection perfectly audible for a film where words and action go hand in hand.
'Léon Morin, Priest' arrives to Blu-ray with the same set of bonus features as its DVD counterpart.
'Léon Morin, Priest' is a stylish and strangely erotic film that touches on faith and innate desire. With Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva in the starring roles, Jean-Pierre Melville constructs a deeply poignant and beautifully-crafted piece of film art depicting life during occupied France which raises the question of conviction to an unknown in a world of contradiction and uncertainty. The Criterion Collection brings the masterful film to Blu-ray with splendid video and good audio. Supplements aren't very extensive, which is somewhat disappointing, but what is offered is enjoyable and rather impressive nonetheless, making the overall package a good purchase for fans.