Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

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Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572]
A Film by Jean-Pierre Melville
Full BluRay 1:1 | 1080p MPEG-4 AVC @ 34996 Kbps | 1:57:43 | 42,21 Gb
Audio: French LPCM 1.0 @ 1152 Kbps | Subs: English
DVD9 (VIDEO_TS) | NTSC 16:9 (720x480) | 01:57:35 | 7,52 Gb
Audio: French AC3 1.0 @ 192 Kbps | Subs: English
Genre: Drama | France, Italy

Jean-Paul Belmondo delivers a subtly sensual performance in the hot-under-the-collar Léon Morin, Priest (Léon Morin, prêtre), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. The French superstar plays a devoted man of the cloth who is desired by all the women of a small village in Nazi-occupied France. He finds himself most drawn to a sexually frustrated widow—played by Emmanuelle Riva—a religious skeptic whose relationship with her confessor turns into a confrontation with both God and her own repressed desire. A triumph of mood, setting, and innuendo, Léon Morin, Priest is an irreverent pleasure from one of French cinema’s towering virtuosos.

DVD Beaver (BluRay)

NB! The first five screenshots are made from Bluray; next five from DVD. All screenshots are enlargeable.

Even though much of his cinematic reputation is built around a sterling series of gangster noirs he made in the 1960s, occasionally the astute filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville surprised his public with something decidedly offbeat and unexpected. Les Enfants Terrible, his film version of a Cocteau play, was one such one-off, and Army of Shadows took the hard-boiled tone of his noirs and transferred it to a period Resistance story. Perhaps most unusual for him, however, was his 1961 drama Léon Morin, Priest, a sober, thoughtful examination of spiritual awakening and desire that nimbly tiptoes around potential melodramatic conventions and emerges as a strong albeit measured character-driven dramatic vehicle for two French superstars of their day.

Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

During the final months of the Italian and German occupation of France, widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) develops a fixation on a fellow female worker (Nicole Mirel) in her correspondence school. Though she’s an atheist, she seeks comfort in her frustration from Father Léon Morin, a devastatingly handsome but earnest Catholic priest in her village of St. Bernard. Over the course of their months of solitary counseling and reading of religious books loaned to her by Father Morin, she develops a zeal for Catholicism and eventually converts. Behind her newly achieved conversion, however, lie growing feelings of ardor for Father Morin who seems closer to her than any other female in the village but who has never even suggested romantic overtures to her. Even after the liberation, Barny continues to dream about Father Morin’s abandoning his vows even for one passionate encounter with her, a hope that seems less likely to happen with each passing day given the change in venues for them both with the cessation of fighting and their superiors’ needs for them elsewhere in France.

Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

Based on the novel by Béatrix Beck, Melville’s screenplay focuses clearly on the Barny character seeing only the events of the war’s final months through her eyes and experiencing her desires and jealousies and angers and joys directly. We have no idea if Father Morin is undergoing any agonies of contrition or soul-searching excursions into the sanctity of his position when he’s not in Barny’s presence (though we’re shown two examples of his coiled tension at different points when confronted with her questioning their mutual feelings). Thus the frustrating sexual strain especially on her part is electrifying though much of the movie, and it’s transferred uniquely to the audience through Melville’s taut, fluid direction. His camera moves are never garish or haphazard, and the leisurely sense of calm with which the film has been shot complements the underlying personal anxiety that’s going on, not only between the two protagonists, but from the surrounding occupation forces which drive people to hide Jews in their homes or mask their children’s ethnicity through fake documents or false baptisms.

Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

In addition to the two sexually charged sequences between Morin and Barny, there are two other moments that are real standouts: Barny’s uncomfortable encounter with two American GIs that suggests imminent rape and is ripe with disquiet and a late eerie exploration of Morin’s apartment where Melville’s camera prowls around the space where we’ve spent much of the film’s near-two hour running time only to find empty walls, scattered papers on the floor, and a chilling wind whistling through the windows. There are those who will find the opening hour slow, especially with the elaborate discussions of theology and sin which highlight all of the debates between Barny and Léon, but what is said is just as important as their body language and the growing feelings she visually expresses toward this unique man. Melville was never a director to rush his effects and thus his results are always more vital and illuminating at his films' conclusions.

Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

The astonishing performance in the film, of course, belongs to Jean-Paul Belmondo, so different is it from anything else he was playing at the time. He’s just as charismatic as he was in the more obviously sexual Breathless, quite a feat for the actor who is never out of his clothes here, and yet there is a striking sense of his depths of feeling and raw emotions that he’s barely containing beneath his utterly composed surface. Emmanuelle Riva gives an incredible performance as well, carefully navigating her character’s emotional journey though both dogma and humanity without missing a step. In a tiny cameo role, Howard Vernon makes a striking impression as a gentle German officer who takes the time to show the human side of the Nazi occupiers.
Matt Hough, Home Theater Forum
Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

It’s a giddy bit of blasphemy to see Jean-Paul Belmondo dressed in priest’s garb. A cleric’s outfit would constrict many a performer, but Belmondo’s sex appeal is its own wardrobe—even the most austere accoutrements can’t dress it down. He’s a broken-nosed devil in disguise, and in Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece, religious dogma is his weapon of choice. Yet despite Belmondo’s in-the-title status, he’s not even the star. That dubious honor would go to Emmanuelle Riva as Barny, a widow living in the French countryside during WWII, who goes head-to-head with M. Morin on issues canonical and corporeal for most of the film’s running time.

Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

Barny’s inclinations tend toward the Communist and Sapphic, but her rock-solid sympathies begin to crumble when she confronts Morin in the confessional as part of a boredom-relieving prank. There begin the many spiritually-cum-sexually–charged dialogues that form the film’s backbone, a lacerating chamber piece fashioned out of a more sprawling novel by Béatrix Beck. (Melville called the book “the most accurate picture I have read of the life of French people under the occupation.”)

Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

The director himself crafted this release version from a barely seen three-hour-plus cut that reportedly filled in more of the wartime details. The result is that Morin and Barny’s conversations attain a metaphorically celestial resonance—the fate of the world seems to hang on every word. Morin is the ultimate winner of this battle of flesh and wills, though Barny is the one Melville keeps us close to as the characters retreat to their respective moral grounds. High or low, they’re lonely places to be.
Keith Uhlich, TimeOut
Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

Provocative, absorbing, and strangely erotic, Melville’s adaptation of Béatrix Beck’s autobiographical novel, exploring the fascinating relationship between a sceptical, young communist woman and a handsome, young liberal priest in German occupied France, is a work of quiet power and adept artistry.
Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

• New high-definition digital restoration (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
• French television interview with director Jean-Pierre Melville and actor Jean-Paul Belmondo from 1961 (4:45)
• Selected-scene commentary - Chapters 1-2 (9:30), 6-7 (11:15), 17-20 (14:29) by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau
• Original theatrical trailer (3:10)
• 2 Deleted Scenes (1:30+2:52)
Léon Morin, Priest (1961) [The Criterion Collection #572] [BluRay + DVD]

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