Léon Morin, Priest is a film that revels in upsetting audience expectations. It’s a Jean-Pierre Melville film with nary a gangster in sight, a film set during World War II that’s not primarily about the war, a film in which the title character is not the protagonist, and a film that repeatedly puts two immensely attractive people in close proximity in a context that’s unlikely to lead to the bedroom. Not that I’m complaining, however—Léon Morin is a richly rewarding film that ultimately reveals its connections to other works in Melville’s opus.
The protagonist in Léon Morin, Priest is Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a French widow whom we first meet riding her bicycle down a wooded road. She’s surprised to meet a group of oddly-dressed men with feathers in their hats, carrying rifles: they turn out to be Italian troops come to occupy the little Alpine village she’s living in, and who provide a bit of comic relief in an otherwise very serious film. As the film opens, Barny reflects that the occupation is “weighing lightly” on her, and she’s evidently more concerned with caring for her daughter (Chantal Gozzi) and doing her work (at a correspondence school relocated to the village from Paris) than anything else. She even has time to consider her attraction to the glamorous administrative secretary, Sabine Levy (Nicole Mirel), whom she describes to a friend as having “a delicately feminized manliness.”
Fun and game end with the arrival of the Germans, however, and Barny and her friends quickly make arrangements to have their children baptized (the kids have Jewish fathers and/or Communist parents, and that heritage has suddenly become a hazard to their health). Not all changes are so easily dealt with, however: Jewish shops are boarded up, people with Jewish-sounding surnames are called in for questioning, and Barny’s boss (Mr. Edelman, played by Marco Behar) takes the hint to shave his beard, get a new passport, and get out of town. Another change: a particularly anti-Semitic co-worker (Irène Tunc) takes advantage of the new normal to share her views with everyone.
These brief scenes effectively create the context in which the main story takes place, but Léon Morin is a film much more about the mysteries of faith than it is about the war. At first, Barny doesn’t have much use for religion—she tells a friend she feels that the priests and their followers are “living off false currency”—and on a whim decides to drop into a Church and go to confession, just to mess with a priest. She picks out Léon Morin, based on a hunch that his name indicates a peasant background. It’s an eventful choice, because the young priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is educated, clever, and at least as dedicated to meeting people where they are as he is to the more intellectual aspects of Church doctrine. He’s also ridiculously handsome (Belmondo starred in Breathless in the previous year), and when you put that together with Riva’s astounding beauty (just two years previously she starred in Hiroshima mon amour) and the fact that both are living celibate lives, you can just about cut the sexual tension with a knife. No spoilers, but I can’t help wondering if the character of Phil Intintola in The Sopranos was informed at all by this film.
Léon Morin, Priest is the opposite of a trashy film, however, and is much more about Barny’s spiritual journey than it is about anyone’s desire to get laid. It’s also about how different people react to the pressure of living in an occupied city, and how they balance their natural self-interest with the desire to help others. These aspects actually interests me more than Barny’s spiritual journey, which is a reflection of the thematic richness of this film. And here’s a fun fact: there was originally a lot more about daily life during the occupation in the film, but Melville cut about an hour of material to focus on the two main characters. The cinematography by Henri Decae is effective in its simplicity (OK, the day-for-night is not so great, but consider the era in which it was shot) and the use of actual locations adds a realness that shooting on sets could never provide. Melville provides a master class in how to achieve great impact while spending little money: for instance, several significant events, including the arrival of the Germans and the liberation, are conveyed through sound, allowing you to imagine the scene and its meaning more effectively than anything a director with a larger budget might have put up on the screen.
There’s no gangsters in Léon Morin, Priest, but this film does have one thing in common with Melville’s better-known works like Le Samourai: it features a character, Morin, who has a professional code and sticks to it, because that’s what a man does. This commitment to principle means that his character can’t change much over the course of the film, of course, and that’s why Barny is the protagonist, but it does suggest why the film and its source novel are named after the priest. | Sarah Boslaugh
Léon Morin, Priest is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Mike Siegel, a video interview with (29 min.) with Volker Schlöndorff titled “Melville: The Demon Within,” a master class on Melville with director and producer (and Melville’s cousin) Rémy Grumbach and writer and producer Philippe Labro (61 min.), Melville’s first film, the 1946 short “24 heures de la vie d’un clown” (“A Day in the Life of a Clown”) (19 min.), and the trailers for three Melville films.