Friday, April 24, 2009

Leon Morin, Priest

I’d yet to enjoy a Jean-Pierre Melville film, but went to see this one in spite of that fact, for Jean-Paul Belmondo. Melville’s films tend to be slow, monochrome, and pedantic—but while this one technically fits that description, I was mesmerized. Perhaps this is because the film is less a movie than a Socratic consideration of Catholicism. And while I am an adamant atheist (with a small-a!), I attended thirteen years of Catholic school, was baptized, made first communion, and was confirmed, and went on many a retreat as a young person who hadn’t yet challenged her faith. Though the film’s heroine’s character arc is the opposite of mine (she starts out a wisecracking atheist who pops into a confessional for a lark, blurting to the priest “religion is the opiate of the people,” and, after many long discussions with Morin/Belmondo, and long nights spent reading theology, she converts to Catholicism), I appreciate this film for what it is: a balls-out challenge to armchair Christians who don’t know the first thing about their religion’s demands.

Morin at one moment makes a comment to the affect that any person with the potential to be a good Christian will be turned away from the Church by the actions and attitudes of the people who claim to be good Christians (and who aren’t). This is so true that I couldn’t quite believe I saw it being said—this screenwriter knows his theological stuff. Rare is the Christian who realizes just how radical, how completely opposed to the workings of our society, Christ’s message was. In Christianity, there is no room for ownership of anything. I doubt that there is even room for the family (didn’t Christ tell his Twelve Apostles to leave behind not only their possessions, but their loved ones?) There is, in fact, no room for anything but God and service to others, building God’s “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.” The only person who has ever been honest about this to me was one high school theology teacher, studying to become a Jesuit priest. And now, Jean-Paul Belmondo, as Leon Morin, who, like that teacher of mine, always stoked the intellectual flame, happily engaging in dialogue with a jaded, pragmatic mind, and nevertheless insisting on the highest level of devotion, the complete subjugation of the self, the turning over of everything to God.

Melville never stoops to staging mysticism or miracles—in fact, the only remotely “magical” sequence is a dream our heroine has when she actually falls away from god, suddenly consumed by lust for Morin, dreaming that he comes to her bed, that she unbuttons his cassock, that they embrace passionately. And this moment, salaciously included to interest the less philosophically-minded in the audience, it seems, is also the first moment the film losses my riveted focus. Certainly, it’s meant to be sordid, and there’s a strange thread of dark sexuality running through the film—overt admittance of lesbian desires, a too-strong overture by an American soldier (we are in France during and immediately after the Nazi occupation)—but our heroine’s melodramatic reaction to her dream—an actual, if half-hearted attempt to seduce Morin—is out of character and a bit cheap. That aside, the film is a fascinating and fascinatingly candid treatise on the Christian faith. Not a film for those completely uninterested in theology or philosophy, it should be required viewing for students at Catholic high schools and colleges, and anyone else who calls himself a Christian. Never mind that the average person who calls himself a Christian wouldn’t be able to comprehend or tolerate the film, much less drudge up the willpower to commit to the demands of his faith.

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