Leon Morin, Priest: Criterion Collection
July 28, 2011
Based on Beatrix Beck’s novel Leon Morin, Priest, initially, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville planned on adhering closely to the source material but ended up condensing the story to a few lines and examining a handful of characters in greater detail. Released in 1961, this film marked his first effort with a significant budget and an attempt at mainstream exposure after years of making independent films. He cannily cast two popular French New Wave actors at the time with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva. The end result was a commercial and critical success for the French auteur.
It is World War II and a small French village has been occupied by Italian soldiers. Barny (Riva) is a woman with a job correcting French assignments. She is in love with co-worker Sabine (Mirel) and they exchange longing looks at work. One day, the German army arrives and takes over occupation of the village. Most of the men take flee and join the resistance or are taken away leaving the women and their children. Barny goes to church even though she doesn’t believe in God and in confession she meets a new priest by the name of Leon Morin (Belmondo). He’s quite smart and engages with Barny in a series of spirited discussions about the morality of Christianity and religion in general. She comes away from their conversations exhilarated. Later on, she meets with him face to face and is taken by his good looks as they continue their discussion about the validity of religion. She argues for her need for proof of the existence of God to which he counters, “Belief in God isn’t some scientific, intellectual certainty, as you seem to imagine. Belief in God is the harmony of our whole being.” These conversations are one of the film’s highlights.
Melville does a nice job of showing how the women interact with each other at work and how their frustrations with the village’s occupation by the Germans bubble to the surface. Despite the film being named after Belmondo’s priest, it is really about the women in the village and their relationship with him, especially Barny. Another fascinating relationship is the one between Barny and Christine (Tunc), one of her co-workers, that starts off as a hostile rivalry but softens over time as they grow to respect and admire one another.
Known for focusing on male protagonists in films like Le Samourai (1967), Leon Morin, Priest demonstrates Melville’s versatility and an affinity for the concerns of women. The film is anchored by strong performances from Belmondo, Riva and a very talented cast of actors that breathe life into the characters. Melville also wrestles with some intriguing themes, like spirituality and morality in the face of something horrible like war.
Actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and director Jean-Pierre Melville are interviewed for a French television program in September 1961. Belmondo talks about his initial apprehension at playing a priest but enjoyed the role. Melville talks about why he cast the actor and making a commercial film. He had wanted to make Leon Morin, Priest for eight years but couldn’t find the right actors.
There is a selected-scene commentary by film scholar and Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau. She talks about the film’s depiction of French history, giving us some background while also touching upon its relationship to Melville’s body of work. She points out how this film was an important turning point in his style. He wanted to merge commercial filmmaking with personal style and sincerity. Vincendeau also analyzes Barny’s desire for Morin and how the casting of Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva was crucial to the film’s commercial success.
Also included are two deleted scenes. When Melville decided to focus on the relationship between Barny and Morin, he significantly edited his initial three-hour cut, which removed several scenes depicting life in the village during wartime. These scenes provide more insight into how German occupation affects the villagers.
Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer.