"Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1961 drama, based on a novel by Béatrix Beck, is a strange hybrid and one of the most peculiarly mutilated films ever. Set in a small French town, it spans the years of the Second World War and the Occupation and carries over into the postwar period. The story is centered on a young widow, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a Communist whose late husband was Jewish and who struggles to spare their two young children from being deported to a concentration camp. Melville’s depiction of wartime France is peerless: the brazenness of collaborators, the casual anti-Semitism, the presence of the swastika and of German street signs, the arrests and disappearances are presented with a harrowing simplicity. But the film’s main drama concerns Barny’s relationship with the handsome, brave, vigorous, and intellectual priest of the title (played with virility and verbal aplomb by Jean-Paul Belmondo), who seduces women’s souls—and Barny’s above all. Melville presents their relationship without irony, avoids any trace of satire, and, to make it the heart of his film, cut out (against the producers’ wishes) an hour of footage about the Occupation. Melville films wartime with barely restrained passion, he films religious dialectics with remarkable but dispassionate skill, and he uses the story of Barny and Morin to skew the postwar political context—to reinforce the role of Catholics in the newly founded Fifth Republic and suppress that of Communists. In French, English, and German."
Richard Brody, The New Yorker, April 20, 2009
"Here’s the thing about LEON MORIN, PRIEST, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1961 adaptation of the novel by Béatrix Beck, opening today in revival at Film Forum. Melville praised Beck’s depiction of the Occupation, and his film, too, is a remarkable representation of it—but when German soldiers carry out the deportation of Jews, the events take place at a distance and reflected in the glass pane of a storefront; the soldiers’ faces aren’t seen, except for that of one, silent and immobile, who is standing guard beside the window. But, later in the film, two German soldiers are seen in action—one, aware that he’s about to be sent to the Russian front, tenderly approaches a French child and gives her his bracelet to wear; another, guarding a railroad crossing, warns a French woman that she is forbidden to cross the tracks, but, when she ignores him and continues on her way, he benignly lets her go. Melville’s skew of things doesn’t look like an accident: in the early sixties, the president of France, Charles de Gaulle, was actively working on achieving reconciliation with (West) Germany; by suppressing the faces of German soldiers arresting Jews and instead showing only the most humane of German soldiers speaking and acting in close-up, Melville was contributing to that cause."
"Similarly, in his approach to the story about a Communist woman who falls under the influence of a priest and converts to Catholicism, he doesn’t just make the woman’s Communism vanish, he makes all the Communists in the early part of the story vanish. Melville’s depiction of the Occupation is superbly textured and detailed, but his vision of the way he wanted postwar France to be then took precedence over his power to depict it as it was. (I know that in France in 1961 films with political content were subject to stringent censorship; but there’s no evidence that Melville struggled with it, or rather, against it.)
"P.S.: Here’s Melville speaking about the film in the indispensable book of interviews with him by Rui Nogueira (long out-of-print, in translation in Viking’s great Cinema One series, readily available in the original French): “I didn’t shoot the scene where Christine describes the terrible death of a child who is killed by an Italian soldier. I like Italians, and I didn’t want to show them in an unsympathetic light.”
Richard Brody, The Front Row Blog, The New Yorker, April 17, 2009
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