Léon Morin, Priest (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 7.26.2011)
Jean-Pierre Melville has been acclaimed for cool, existential thrillers, but Léon Morin, Priest is something of a surprise since it's a psychological study of two non-criminals. Since Melville was a Jewish atheist, his sympathetic portrayal of a Catholic priest is also unusual. Adapted by Melville from Barny -- a 1948 semi-autobiographical novel by Béatrix Beck -- this 1961 film occurs during the German occupation of France and centers around Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), who works in an office in a small village. A widow with a small daughter whose father was Jewish, she launches an initially antagonistic relationship with Leon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), only to find herself falling for this priest.
Melville avoids all the potential clichés and skims past sentimentality with his use of understatement. Much of the film’s power comes from the depth of the performances, especially the work of Riva, who is best known for Hiroshima moon amour (and still working at 84). Léon Morin, Priest may be Melville’s closest approximation of the New Wave style, with scenes lasting a few seconds (the better to intensify the long sessions between Barny and Morin), montage, jump cuts and dissolves. This is the fourth of six films Melville made with cinematographer Henri Decaë, who contrasts Barny’s two worlds: flat lighting in the outside world and noir touches in the scenes between the protagonists (afraid of her emotions, Barny twice retreats into shadows).
This Blu-ray mixes some stunningly clear black-and-white with moments of intense grain. The extras include a brief 1961 French television interview in which Melville explains that it was difficult to find an actor 25-30 who looked like a peasant, was masculine and could convey intellect. He also explains that he picked Belmondo before the success of Breathless.
The most substantial extra is a commentary on selected scenes by Melville biographer Ginette Vincendeau, who provides historical background about the German occupation and Melville’s participation in the resistance. She explains that Léon Morin, Priest represents a turning point in the director’s style, with longer shots and more fluid camera movement. She also explains how Melville trimmed his 193-minute rough cut to 117 minutes, eliminating much of the historical content and focussing on character. Eight years later, Melville dealt with the occupation in greater detail with Army of Shadows.
The film was a hit in France, though leftist critics attacked it for presenting an establishment view of religion. Some of the excised content appears in two sequences of deleted scenes. A booklet includes an essay by filmmaker Gary Indiana -- who looks at Léon Morin, Priest as a woman’s film -- and a 1970 interview with Melville, who talks about casting, the film's themes and editing.
Believe it or not, Léon Morin, Priest was not released in the United States until 2009. Apparently, American distributors thought it was a boring film about a priest, rather than the compelling look at identity and desire that it really is. -- Michael Adams