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Journal d’un curé de campagne

September 17, 2015

DOACPJournal d’un cure de Campagne is about a young priest who, whilst suffering from an illness, is assigned to a new parish in a French country village. The story is told by the priests recounting of his experiences in his diary.

As he carries out his duties in his new parish though, he is treated with animosity and hatred by many of the villagers, because they see him as an unwanted intrusion into their lives. As he becomes estranged, he increasingly relies on his faith for strength and comfort, however even this begins to fade as he witnesses the townspeople purvey sinful and malicous behaviour, damaging his faith in human nature.

“God is not a torturer; He wants us to love another.”

 It is based on a novel by Georges Bernanos.

“Ambricourt as Spiritual Wasteland: [6] At the beginning of the film, a white sign post with the name “Ambricourt” written on the cross-piece announces the particular place in the universe in which most of the events of this film will take place. When the priest arrives in the village one chilly November day in the 1930s, no one welcomes him. Indeed, the crumbling, mildewed walls of the rectory, as well as the broken glass in one of the panels of the front door, indicate at once the little regard that the villagers have for their new priest. Confirming this first impression, an alderman informs the priest a few days later that the town council has agreed to provide the rectory with electricity, but perhaps not for four months. This means, of course, that the priest will spend the winter without heat or hot water.

“The main reason for the villagers’ meanness is perhaps their poverty. Their physical poverty makes them resent those, like the priest, who have never had to toil as they have done. “You do have a soft time of it. There’s no excuse for exploiting the poor. You like your money easy, Father,” an old widower tells the priest, contemptuously, when the priest tells him how much his wife’s funeral will cost. But the poverty of Ambricourt is above all a spiritual poverty. The villagers seem to have lost all hope of any spiritual transformation, either in this world or in the next.

“The pain the hostility of his parishioners causes, however, is nothing compared with the pain the priest feels when his mentor, the Vicar of Torcy, criticizes him for his ineffectuality. “I’m wondering what have you young men got in your veins these days. In my time they made men of the church leaders of parishes, real masters! Seminaries these days send us choirboys, young ragamuffins….” And later the vicar says, “The bishop must be hard up for priests, to put a parish in your hands.” The priest meekly accepts this criticism as well-deserved.

“He cannot pray. “Behind me there was nothing and before me was a wall. A black wall,” he writes. “There was no obstacle, so no hope of breaking through the obstacle. There’s no obstacle. Nothing…. God has left me. Of this, I’m sure.”

“Encounters With Transcendent Reality: In the priest’s first encounter with grace, he witnesses the conversion of the countess, a proud woman estranged from her family and from God because she cannot reconcile herself to the loss of her infant son years before. The priest had gone to the chateau on behalf of Chantal, the countess’s daughter, who had confided to the priest her great distress at her father’s plan to send her away, so that he can better pursue his affair with her governess. The priest acts with great trepidation, knowing that the Church may regard his action as undue interference in the spiritual life of a member of the Church, but his compassion for Chantal prompts him to take the risk.

“At first, the countess dismisses the priest’s fears that Chantal may commit suicide and accuses him of being over dramatic. She declares that she does not care about her husband’s infidelities, having lived with them for years, and asks why Chantal should not suffer as she has suffered. The priest chides her for her coldness of heart and warns her of the eternal consequences of her pride. But the countess becomes more and more defiant, finally asserting that God no longer matters to her, that she hates God for taking her son from her.

“Now understanding the depths of the mother’s pain over the loss of her child, the priest rises from his chair and utters an impassioned speech on how it was in compassion for human suffering that God came to earth and was crucified. Feeling that her pain has been recognized, the countess then quietly says, “What must I say?” And the priest answers, “Say ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.’” He is no longer the pastor calling a wayward member of his flock to task, but he has become the shepherd guiding the wounded sheep into the comfort of the fold.

“But the countess is not so quickly meek. She tells the priest that if there were “in this world or the other, some place free from God, if it meant suffering a death every second, eternally, she would carry her son to that place and she would say to God, “Do your worst and crush us!” She expects the priest to consider her statement monstrous, but he tells her that he too has felt that way at times, later writing in his journal that, at that moment, Dr. Delbende’s image was before him.

“Strengthened by the feeling that her suffering is shared, the countess throws the medallion containing the picture of her dead son into the fire, in symbolic detachment from his memory. Then, in a sudden gesture of submission, she falls to her knees and covers her face with her hands. It is as if a stone wall has fallen, the hardness in her heart has broken down, and a flood has washed away all her pride and defiance. Struck by the sense of the presence of God in the room, the priest can only raise his hand in blessing, a look of wonder on his face. Later, the countess sends a letter to the priest thanking him for leading her out of despair into peace. “All is well,” she writes. “I didn’t believe resignation was possible and, in fact, it’s not resignation that’s come over me. I’m not resigned. I’m happy. I desire nothing.”

“At key moments during this verbal duel between the priest and the countess, the sound of the raking is heard, and twice the camera shifts to the park outside the window, showing the gardener raking leaves. This shift from highly charged moments to the ordinary world outside the room serves to ground the mystical in everyday reality. As Paul Schrader has pointed out, in the definitive text on Bresson’s transcendental techniques, the disparity between this surface reality and the mystical events taking place behind the surface intensifies the emotional impact of the film.

“A short time after witnessing the countess’s conversion, the priest has a kind of religious epiphany, a sudden perception of the meaning of his life in relationship to God. It happens during a conversation with the Vicar of Torcy. After the vicar has made his usual criticisms of the priest—he does not dress properly, his diet is a disgrace, and he does not pray enough—the vicar begins to explain what he thinks is his rather fanciful idea that every priest receives his vocation at that point in his spiritual past when he met Jesus in the Garden of Olives. The priest suddenly realizes that he has often returned to that olive grove, though he has never before been consciously aware of it. He later writes in his journal, “Suddenly Our Lord had shown me grace and revealed through my old master’s lips that nothing could tear me from my chosen place in eternity. I was a prisoner of the Holy Agony.” Tears rolling down his cheeks unawares are the only outward sign of the cataclysmic impact of this epiphany on the priest’s inner world. Grounding the epiphany in reality, as well as intensifying the emotional impact of this scene, the priest blows his nose noisily into a handkerchief, which makes him appear somewhat ridiculous. A dog barks in the background.

“The third mystical experience dramatized in this film is the priest’s vision of the Blessed Virgin. The priest had become ill during a sick call, after two female relatives of the invalid had given him a poisoned drink. (This was a joke the women liked to play on visitors, Seraphita later tells him.) Continuing on his rounds as darkness falls, he becomes so ill that he faints several times. The great fear that he will be found lying half-dead (yet another scandal) makes him repeatedly try to struggle to his feet. The image of the Virgin is constantly before him, as the words of the Vicar of Torcy reverberate in his head. “She was of course the mother of mankind,” the vicar had said, “but she was also the daughter. The ancient world, the world before grace, rocked her in its cradle. For centuries, its old hands protected this wondrous little girl, this queen of the angels, which she still is to this day.”

“The priest’s final illumination takes place immediately before his death in the apartment of his friend from seminary days, Louis Dufrety. Realizing that he is seriously ill, the priest had gone to a nearby city to see a specialist, where he learned that he has stomach cancer and only a short time to live. Before returning to Ambricourt, the priest decides to look up Dufrety, whom the priest believes to be on a leave of absence from the ministry because of illness. When the priest sees a sign outside Dufrety’s apartment announcing Dufrety as a drug salesman, however, he realizes that Dufrety has left the priesthood.

“The priest’s horror deepens upon entering Dufrety’s disorderly apartment, where baskets and straw-filled crates are piled up in the corners of the room, and bottles and pitchers and dirty eating utensils litter the table tops. As Dufrety talks about his intellectual interests and the business activities he pursues, he says, only out of a sense of obligation to his woman companion, the priest becomes more and more ill and finally loses consciousness. When he awakes, he finds himself alone, lying on the bare mattress of a narrow camp-bed. In panic he cries out, “I don’t want to die here. Get me out of here, anywhere!”

“When Dufrety’s woman companion comes to sit beside his bed, though, he becomes reconciled to his fate. In a soft, gentle voice she comforts the priest, serving as yet another incarnation of the compassionate feminine. As Keith Reader points out, “Her voice, her language, cradle the dying priest at his moment of greatest need.”9 The woman apologizes for the disarray of the apartment, explaining that she has to leave for work before dawn to work as a cleaning woman. Further, she does not feel well, alluding to the fact that she has contracted tuberculosis from Dufrety. In response to the priest’s question, she says that she had refused to marry Dufrety because should he wish to return to the priesthood, she did not want to be in the way. As she talks, she shows herself to be not the fallen woman who has committed the grievous sin of distracting a priest from his duty, as the Church would regard her, but a woman who has achieved saintliness through her compassion for others.

“It is in this context that the priest has a final vision. Sitting on a chair, wrapped in a tattered blanket, the priest looks up at something out of the range of the camera, with an expression of awe upon his face. What he sees, we are never told, but this vision seems to inspire the priest’s last words: “What does it matter? All is grace.”

“At the end of the film, the Vicar of Torcy begins to read from Dufrety’s letter announcing the priest’s death. The shadow of a white cross is superimposed on a close-up of the letter. Gradually, the shadow becomes darker and darker and the letter fainter and fainter, until only the cross remains, symbolizing the priest’s transcendence of earthly suffering. Apart from its historical meaning in Christianity, the cross is an archetypal symbol of the conjunction of the world of the spirit (the vertical piece) with the world of phenomena (the horizontal piece). As the white signpost announcing Ambricourt had filled the screen at the beginning of the film, the shadow of the white cross fills the screen at the end. The film has come full circle.” Journal of Religion and Film: Diary of a Country Priest: The Transcendent on Film by Wanda Avila

“I pray badly and not enough, Almost every day after mass I have to interrupt my act of thanksgiving to see some parishioners.”

“I hoped that this diary might help me to concentrate my thoughts… I had thought it might become a kind of communion between God and myself, an extension of prayer, a way of easing the difficulties of verbal expression.”

“More than ever I need this diary. It is only during these snatched moments that I am aware of some effort to see clearly into myself. If I keep to it strictly, morning and evening, my diary breaks up this wilderness, and sometimes I slip the last few pages into my pocket, to read them again on my long dull tramps from one end of the parish to another.”

I know I have very little experience, yet I seemed instantly to recognize a certain inflection betraying some profound spiritual hurt. Others perhaps might then be able to find the right words to appease and persuade. I don’t know such words. True pain coming out of a man belongs primarily to God, it seems to me. I try and take it humbly to my heart, just as it is. I endeavor to make it mine — to love it.

“A priest pays attention only to suffering, provided that suffering is real… I’m not a professor of moral theology.”

“I believe that ever since his fall, man’s condition is such that neither around him nor within him can he perceive anything, except in the form of agony.”

“The wish to pray is a prayer in itself.”

I couldn’t pray. I know very well that the desire to pray is already prayer, and that God couldn’t ask for more. But it wasn’t a question of duty. At that moment, I needed prayer like I needed air in my lungs or oxygen in my blood.

“God has left me. Of this I am sure.”

Woman: Anyway, we’ll be judged by our acts. What have I done wrong? …
Priest: God will break you.
W: Break me? He has broken me already. God took my son from me. What more can He do to me? I no longer fear Him.
P: God took him away for a time, but your hardness—
W: Silence.
P: No, I will not be silent. The coldness of your heart may keep you from him forever.
W: That’s blasphemy! God does not take revenge!
P: Those are mere human words, with no meaning except for you.
W: Are you saying my son might hate me?
P: You will no longer see or know each other.
W: No sin could make such a punishment just. This is madness. A sick man’s dreams! … Nothing can part us from those we have loved more than life, more than salvation itself. Love is stronger than death. Your scriptures say so.
P: We did not invent love. It has its order, its law.
W: God is its master.
P: He is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you would love, don’t place yourself beyond love’s reach.
W: This is insane! You speak to me as you would to a criminal. Do my husband’s infidelities and my daughter’s indifference and rebellion and hatred count for nothing? You might as well say it’s all my fault!
P: No one knows what can come of an evil thought in the long run. Our hidden faults poison the air others breathe.
W: You’d never get through the day if you dwelt on such thoughts!
P: I believe that, madam, I believe if God gave us a clear idea of how closely we are bound to each other in good and evil, we truly could not live.
W: Pray tell, what is this hidden sin?
P: You must resign yourself. Open your heart.
W: Resign myself? To what? Am I not resigned? If I weren’t, I’d be dead. Resigned? I’ve been too much so. I should have killed myself!
P: That’s not the resignation I mean.
W: Then what? I go to Mass. I could have given up worship altogether. Indeed, I thought of it.
P: How dare you treat God like that!
W: I lived in peace, and I should have died in peace.
P: That is no longer possible.
W: God has ceased to matter to me. What will you gain by making me admit I hate Him, you fool?
P: You don’t hate Him now. Now at last you are face-to-face. He and you.
[Pause. She sits down and fumbles with a picture of her son.]
W: Do you swear—
P: You can’t bargain with God. You must yield to Him unconditionally. But I can assure you there isn’t one kingdom for the living and one for the dead. There is only the kingdom of God, and we are within it.
W: You know what I was wondering a moment ago? Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you. I was saying to myself, “If there were, in this world or the other, some place free from God, if it meant suffering a death every second, eternally, I’d carry my son to that place, and I’d say to God: ‘Do Your worst and crush us!'” Is that monstrous?
P: No.
W: What do you mean, no?
P: Because I too have felt that way at times. … Madam, if our God were the god of the pagans or philosophers, though he might take refuge in the highest heavens, our misery would drag him down. But, as you know, ours did not wait. You might shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, whip Him with rods, and finally nail Him to a cross. What would it matter? It is already done.
W: What must I say to Him?
P: Say: Thy kingdom come.
W: Thy kingdom come.
P: Thy will be done.
W: I can’t. It’s as if I were losing him twice over.
P: The kingdom whose coming you have just wished for is yours and his.
W: Then let that kingdom come!

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