Léon Morin, Priest is a somewhat atypical film for director Jean-Pierre Melville and star Jean-Paul Belmondo, at least when compared with the most iconic work of both. A moody, sometimes playful tale of sexual repression and religious debate, the film is set against the backdrop of the German occupation of France during WWII, with Belmondo starring as the titular priest.
Belmondo had recently made the jump to stardom, and his rakish charm and good looks might seem at odds with the character of a priest, but work perfectly as Léon Morin, who doesn't go out of his way to discourage his popularity with the ladies around town.
His most apparent sparring -- both sexual and religious -- is with Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a widow and atheist who confronts him as a joke one day in his confessional booth, but is drawn in by his just-beneath-the-surface sensuality. Morin, utilizing the old flirt-and-convert method, gives her a series of books and prods her to explore her faith, while allowing time for a few smoldering glances.
Eventually, Barny finds herself compelled to convert, although her sexual and religious impulses are clearly getting crossed. She's not the only one, as a parade of Jewish and communist women are often seen visiting Morin's presbytery.
Like his masterful gangster films, Melville shrouds Léon Morin, Priest in a blanket of ambiguity. Morin is not a particularly dogmatic priest, and talks plainly about his problems with traditional church doctrine. It's never clear if his subtle seduction is merely a bit of trifling fun or fueled by his constantly suppressed sexuality. Barny is a rather rudderless protagonist, but the film judges none of her actions. Even with the backdrop of the French Resistance, Melville resists making any grand statements about the war.
Léon Morin, Priest doesn't draw the viewer in with ultra-cool atmospherics or crackling storytelling like much of Melville's work. Like Morin, its appeal is more subtle. For those who only know Melville and Belmondo from their ostensibly more stylish work, this film is an excellent look at some of their other charms.
The Blu-ray Disc
Léon Morin, Priest is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Aside from some slight image pulsation and flicker that occurs intermittently throughout, this is a strong transfer, with solid grayscale separation and image sharpness and clarity. Damage, not including the print pulsation, is minimal, and the image retains a pleasing film-like quality. Whites are pure and strong, although blacks rarely look too deep and inky, most often registering as a darker shade of gray. For a title of its stature, it's been given a nice high-def presentation here.
Audio is presented in an exceptionally clean uncompressed monaural track that features excellent clarity.
We hear from Melville an Belmondo briefly in a French TV interview from 1961 as both discuss they're experience making the film. At less than five minutes, it's tantalizingly short, but it's better than nothing.
The film's original cut ran over three hours (it's final cut comes in just under two), but it's possible much of that footage is lost, as only two brief deleted scenes that amplify some ancillary material are included here.
Ginette Vincendeau lends her thoughts to a handful of scenes in a selected-scene commentary with the film's original theatrical trailer rounding out the disc.
A booklet with an essay by Gary Indiana and a reprint of an interview with Melville about the film is also included.
The Bottom Line
An accomplished and intriguing film, Léon Morin, Priest has been given an admirable presentation here by Criterion.