Leon Morin, Pretre

Leon Morin, Pretre


The cinema of Jean Pierre Melville is a world full of thieves, hooligans, gamblers, and priests. Priests? Yes, that’s correct, can’t you tell from the title? “Leon Morin, Priest” is finally getting its due United States release only just a few years from its initial festival run (it was made in 1961).

Well, at least it is finally here and American audiences are getting to experience the thrill of new New wave. There is something about the feel of New Wave cinema that is so refreshing and it really unites the films. Be it a Godard, Truffaut, Varda, Melville, (maybe not Renais), you watch their New Wave work and it is like your first sniff of spring. Maybe it was the politics of the time, maybe it is just a French thing, or maybe it was the camaraderie of the group, but these films are linked not only by time and place, but also a freshness and a rebellious youthfulness. They are hard to resist.

And priests being the subject this time around, how odd! Yet how it works! Unlike some of his contemporaries, Melville was never quick to rush into production on a film. He made only one film in between this and 1956’s “Bob le flambeur;” his most loved and renowned film. From a gambler named Bob to a priest named Leon, Melville’s films may not have the deepest titles, but they are full of thought, care, and passion for life and the cinema.

Interestingly enough, the film is told from the perspective not of Leon, but of Barny. Barny is not a colorful dinosaur, but rather a young woman played by “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”’s Emmanuelle Riva. She will supply the narration as well as the perspective for the film.

“Leon Morin, Pretre” takes place in Occupied France, troublesome times to say the least. While Melville acknowledges this, the film is in no sense meant to be a downer, or does it even want you to be too aware of the dismal and dark that surrounds these times. But there consequences are present.

Take Barny for example. Widowed, she lives with her daughter. She works correcting papers and does her best to keep her daughter safe. The daughter, impeccably cute, invariably wins every scene she plays in due to her ability to roll with Melville’s script. The audience follows her around for a while and we learn that she may be in love with one of her female co-workers. 

But what about Leon, you may ask? Oh, well, we also learn that Barny is a communist militant, who, seemingly on a whim, enters a church, randomly picks a priest, and decides to give him what for! Oh, you have to love the choreographed randomness of these films. We’re following her a good fifteen minutes. The film seems to give us no plot devices to allow for the entrance of a priest and then: WHAM! A seemingly random act changes the course of the film, and her life. And isn’t how that happens in life?

Leon (the priest, not the professional) is played beautifully by the oddly faced, but none-the-less charming Jean Paul Belmondo. In an expert performance, Belmondo restrains himself, but allows the essence of Belmondo the romance and action star to exude from his priest. Leon is worldy, smart, charming. You want to hang out with him. Girls want to be swooned over by him. Yet he is through and through a priest. He is confident and young, and disagrees with a lot of what the Church says, but he is faithful to God, and believes. And follows His path.

I have to admit, I thought that Belmondo would either seem out of place portraying a straight priest, or go the other route and just be Belmondo in priest garb. This is one of his best, most nuanced performances. And it is made all the better by Emmanuelle Riva, whose work here should not be underrated.

And what do they do once they meet? Why they talk. And discuss religion. And read books. While on paper it may seem as much fun as Godard’s later militant work, Melville has the charisma to carry it all through, and never veer from being entertaining. This film could fit on the tail end of a double bill with Gambling Bob, and it could work gangbusters.

And what about Barny and her affection for her female coworker? Well, I suppose you could say that got transitioned when she fell for Leon, who openly discussed and argues religion with her. Leon is of the opinion that Barny is seeking affection in a time when all the men are gone, so it is of no surprise she begins to have feeling for the women around her out of lack of options if nothing else. There are only women. And priests, of course. But the film is about so much more than just the carnal, which certainly is often at the front of Barny’s mind. And the suggestive touches and caresses that she finds occasionally with Leon suggest that perhaps she is not the only one. But we all have our duties.

And the film leaves you with thoughts and questions, as the best of them do. For instance, remember how all the New Wave aficionados had a wink and a smile above at realizing how the French auteur reveled in randomness? Well, when you leave the film…you might begin to think it wasn’t random. And that the film is following a structure, a perhaps Divine structure that is innate in the story Melville is telling. Is it, or is he just having fun? Sometimes you just have got to have faith.

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