Jean-Pierre Melville’s reputation in the states began as hearsay, as his films were generally distributed here several years after their European release. 1956’s “Bob le Flambeur” came out here in 1959, but was not widely seen until its re-release in the early 80’s. 1967’s “Le Samourai” fared somewhat better, its following having grown steadily since its release in 1972. His later work, however, went unseen for decades, 1969’s “Army of Shadows” languishing until 2006, and 1970’s “Le Cercle Rouge” until 1990. Now, nearly forty years since it was made, we can see “Leon Morin, Priest,” a strong work from 1961 that foreshadowed some of the themes of his late masterpieces.
“Leon Morin,”Priest” is essentially a dialogue between a radical priest and a faith-stricken atheist taking place in a provincial village during the Nazi occupation of France It has been unreleased in the states until now, possible because of the open and non-critical embrace of both lesbianism and communism. One can imagine the kind of ad campaign it might have had: “That ‘Breathless’ guy and that “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” girl sizzle in this shocking tale of Forbidden Love!” Jean-Paul Belmondo (Leon Morin) and Emmanuele Riva (Barny) are excellent in roles that require substantial internal conflict and almost no exterior expression. The war outside has destroyed the very concept of empirical rationality, leaving the church an oasis of philosophical freedom. The callous attitude of the French citizens toward such everyday realities as the fate of deported Jews is one of the many factors that Melville incorporates into his portrait of a reprobate world. When the Americans arrive, they are not the altruistic liberators of WWII legend, but a band of rapists and thieves.
Seen from today’s perspective, Morin might be defined as an advocate of ‘liberation theology,” a term that was fairly obscure in the states until the Nicaraguan revolution. This philosophical marriage of Marxist and Christian idealism would have been seen as an appalling contradiction at the time, when Christianity stood in opposition to secular humanism and godlessness was misunderstood as a defining factor of Communism. Marx, of course, opposed the claim of “absolute truth” from religions that contained historical variables, but was not necessarily averse to the general religious beliefs of the people, naïve as he might have thought them.
The figure of the worker priest was not unknown to American films. In 1961, the same year that Melville made “Leon Morin, Priest,” Don Murray wrote and starred in “The Hoodlum Priest,” the true story of Jesuit priest Father Charles Clark, who had set up a halfway house for delinquent youth. Murray’s priest was a more radical incarnation of the character upon which Pat O’ Brien had built his career, beginning with 1938’s “Angels with Dirty Faces.”
The most memorable working –class priest in American cinema is surely Karl Malden’s Father Barry in 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” which soft-pedals the socialism by casting the union as the adversarial force against which the wisdom and influence of the church must prevail.
Morin’s primary activity, when not teasing the female parishioners with his celibate hunkiness, is the hiding and baptizing of Jewish children. During the war, many rebel priests,in defiance of the Church’s collaboration with the Nazi’s, helped the French Jews escape to neutral countries such as Spain and Switzerland. While Morin lacks the heroic stature of someone like Abbe Pierre, he should be considered an active member of the Resistance, his allegiance to humanity freeing him from Catholic politics.
Melville is not so much interested in religion and priests as he is in the world outside their enclosures. Although the sounds and images of war can be seen and heard through the cracks in the walls, there is little contact between soldiers and citizens. In fact, the closest contact comes after the war, when the American soldier tries to force himself on Barny.
Melville’s direction is concise and articulate, scenes sometimes coming to a blunt end before they are concluded, possibly the result of cutting the film by a third, but perhaps because the resolution of a scene is unnecessary once its point has been sufficiently stated. The film is reminiscent of Roberto Rossellini’s “Paisan in its portrait of covert resistance among the village peasantry. There are also elliptical glimpses at the more professional guerrilla actions of the village men as they leave the town in the morning to take up their positions in the forest.
With “Leon Morin, Priest,” Melville began to break free of the pulpish confines of his earlier work to discover the freedoms of a less plot-driven narrative. It is something of a blueprint for his late masterpiece, “Army of Shadows,” but his vision had not yet sharpened to the point where events of the past could be so well-integrated into present-day memory. This 1961 film is a more traditional period piece, alluding to nothing outside of the period in which it is set. As such, it lacks the ghostly perspective of “Army of Shadows,” although it takes giant steps beyond the frivolous Hollywood masquerade of “Bob le Flambeur.”