Léon Morin, Priest Blu-ray (Criterion) | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Léon Morin, Priest Blu-ray

Studio: Criterion

Aug 30, 2011 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Find It At: Criterion

For his sixth feature, France's Jean-Pierre Melville couldn't have stepped further from the fare he's associated with today. Gone are the usual thugs, bank robbers, and freedom fighters that populate his films, replaced with lonely housewives and a hot-under-the-collar clergyman. Léon Morin, Priest is an in-depth study of the relationship between a handsome holy man and a non-believer as he tries to convert her, all the while resisting the advances of the local women whose men have been pulled away by World War II. Léon Morin, Priest is adapted from an autobiographical Beatrix Beck novel and Melville respectfully handles the material in a way few others could have pulled off. (If the film had been made in Hollywood the very same year, it probably would have starred Rock Hudson and been titled Hot for Preacher.)

Melville's best move was casting two of the French New Wave's strongest actors: Hiroshima, mon amour's Emmanuele Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Breathless. Belmondo plays the titular man of the cloth, Léon Morin, but we follow the story from the point-of-view of Riva's Barny. A young widow with a half-Jewish daughter, Barny works in an office with a group of other young women, most whom are similarly struggling to protect their children in Nazi-occupied France. In what seems like a prank, the atheist, communist, skeptical Barny decides to go to confession to pick a fight with the Catholic cleric. The scene that occurs next sets the tone for the rest of the film. The relentless Barny tries to punch holes in his faith as the unwavering Morin offers answers to her every query. Under normal circumstances, Barny likely abandoned the failed experiment; that is, if Father Morin weren't so ridiculously attractive.

Riva and Belmondo are, unsurprisingly, fantastic in their roles, eking every ounce of tension and suppressed desire out of every scene. As the film goes on, their visits become more frequent and intimate; Barny starts to entertain his religious outlook as Morin isn't entirely put off by her clear attraction to him. Morin seems to almost enjoy toying with the local women's urges, reveling in his position as an unattainable object of desire. To the film's credit, it never takes the turns you'd come to expect from the setup; the characters' motives and actions remain reasonably ambiguous until the film's end; at no point does anyone ever seem completely on the moral up-and-up.

The film does suffer from several long, dry patches as it amounts to a whole lot of philosophical and spiritual tête-à-tête, as priest and pupil exchange barbs and questions for the bulk of the film in his cramped apartment in the rectory. The cinematography and lighting are superb throughout, though, and the film's various locales, from shadow-filled stairwell and dimly-lit churches to the sunny French countryside, are all gorgeously rendered in Criterion's near-spotless Blu-ray transfer.

Extras seem sparse only by the high standards Criterion's set for themselves in the past. There's an archival French TV interview with Melville and star Belmondo that runs for about five minutes, as well as a commentary track by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau that runs through portions of the film. There are also two deleted scenes that run a couple minutes each. The extras regularly mention that Melville's original cut of the film ran longer than three hours; only an interview excerpt printed in the thick booklet offers any explanation of what the more than hour's worth of cut scenes might have entailed. It feels like a tease, but one's led here to believe that this additional footage may no longer exist.

In the end, it's lesser Melville, but that's still better than most films. While by no means essential viewing for anyone but fans of the director's or actors' other work, Léon Morin, Priest is far from a waste of time. (www.criterion.com)

Author rating: 6/10

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