Monday, April 02, 2007


A MAN ESCAPED (1956, France, Robert Bresson)
We’ll meet up.
In another life, maybe.
In this life. Have faith.
Have faith in your hooks and ropes. And in yourself.

Robert Bresson is one of those directors film lovers inevitably discover, and his Catholicism, shaped by the traumas of World War Two France, make him especially fascinating to cinephiles with a taste for spiritual things. This is a film you can return to over and over again, a stark and powerful experience that reveals layer after layer of mystery and understanding the more we consider it.

The “man” of the title is Fontaine, a French Resistance fighter locked away in a Nazi prison. We know from the blunt title and his past-tense narration that he has escaped and is recounting his story at some later time. Or do we? If we know that his ultimate fate is secure, why do we feel such tension and suspense?

As relentless as the film-maker’s attention is to the inescapable physical realities of this prison – wood and iron and stone, fabric and wire and water on a face – we’re also led constantly to question whether these are the only reality available to Fontaine. Perhaps his escape will be spiritual, the kind of rebirth suggested in a scripture smuggled to him on a scrap of paper: “You must be born from above.” The film’s subtitle undercuts the main title’s apparent sense of certainty when it refers to that same passage in John, reminding us that God defies predictability: “the wind blows as it listeth.” (Bresson, a master film-maker whose Christianity is perhaps more integrated into his work than any other, loves titles that introduce notes of uncertainty that stand in tension with the “certainties” of faith: LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT translates to “The Devil Probably,” and the “au hasard” of AU HASARD BALTHASAR means “by chance.”) Or perhaps Fontaine’s only escape will be into eternity, through the doorway of death, as suggested by the man without hope in the next cell: when Fontaine encourages him by saying “We’ll meet up,” the man replies “In another life, maybe.” Will Fontaine be taken away and shot without warning or explanation, like other prisoners? Will he escape the walls of his cell only to be taken in a corridor or gunned down on a rooftop?

Is escape even a possibility? It hardly seems likely, and Bresson explicitly tells us that the slim hope of freedom will be kept alive only through constant faith – faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Visually we’re as confined as Fontaine: we glimpse the corridors of the prison only through the peephole in his cell door, by surreptitious glances down hallways when the prisoners are led to the prison yard, in the awkward view from his barred window. We hear cryptic sounds that must be deciphered – tappings from other cells, footsteps, keys on a railing, unidentifiable squeaks and sobs and whimpers. Secretive conversations at the trough where inmates wash their face elude our understanding, cut short by guards or full of obscure and uncertain meanings. And from outside the prison, sounds of traffic, trains, a clock tower’s bell.

We are caught, along with Fontaine, in a constant, sometimes unbearable tension between confinement and liberty, between palpable physical circumstances and invisible spiritual realities.

While it may sound like A MAN ESCAPED is an extended allegory about the hope of escaping “the prison of this life” through some sort of spiritual transcendence, the film is far too particular for that. Its overwhelming realism uses endless visual details and all the tactile sensation they suggest to draw us vicariously into an experience of imprisonment in World War Two France. Confinement, waiting, fearing, hoping. The inscrutable capriciousness of the mostly-unseen prison authorities. The way our senses strain to pick up minute details when denied of almost any stimulation. The way stolen scraps of conversation must satisfy the craving for human contact and community, the way smuggled scraps of scripture speak to a starved human spirit. The mechanics of hope.

I’ll be honest: this film is hard going. People often refer to Bresson’s films as “rigorous” or “austere,” and A MAN ESCAPED is quintessential: there’s little dialogue and long silences, we’re as cut off from beauty and certainty as the character whose prison cell we share, and the story itself is stripped down to absolute essentials – cold hard physcial reality, and the will to escape.

If you’re looking for more accessible prison movies that touch on these spiritual questions - hope in the face of despair, the power of human relationship in a place of terrible inhuman isolation – I would recommend THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION or TO END ALL WARS. But if you’ve got an evening free of distractions and you’re ready to experience a true landmark of spiritual cinema, let me point you to A MAN ESCAPED. As with so many truly great films, you may want to view it more than once, to talk about the film with friends and to read up on it – on the web, at your local university library.

But don’t get the idea that this film is an intellectual puzzle that has to be picked apart and philosophized over to make any sense. The fact is, it can be a remarkably powerful experience the first time you view it, its suspense gradually building to excruciating intensity – frankly, this film made me breathless the way few Hitchcocks ever have. And the master director accomplishes all of this with incredible restraint and nuance. It’s nothing short of a wonder that so stark and minimal a film can create feelings that are so potent, images and moments that linger so persistently, divine intimations that seem so inescapable.


I also created a discussion guide for this film, which you can order online from CT Movies

This film is available (but only in vhs!) at Videomatica

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