The woman appears inert, floating through scene after scene seemingly unaffected by her surroundings. She is somewhat distant; from her coworkers, from her daughter (who is sent off to live with others early in the film), and even from her circumstances. Her provincial French town at the foot of the Alps has been occupied by Italian soldiers in goofy hats, and this does not seem to impact on her life in the slightest. When they are replaced by German soldiers ominously closing over the town with a curtain of gray, she appears worried, but life goes on. As played by Emmanuelle Riva, Barny is opaque. Sealed within a bubble of self-reflection, she is unable to express her love for a woman in her office, or rebel against the Germans busily rounding up Jews in the town, or even interact much with the daughter newly baptized as a Christian “by the grace of God and the Germans.” She is an atheist, and holds in contempt the brutality aimed at the Jews in her village, and her household. When she ambushes Leon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in the confessional, it is not in the interest of human connection, but as a joke to argue over the existence of God. Much to her surprise, Leon is game for reasons left unexplained.
Leon Morin, Priest could be set anywhere, during any time, and would be virtually unchanged. The focus of this strange and deceptively meandering film is a playful exploration of faith, its utility, and a more universal idea of what religion stands for. The Priest is a true believer, but comes off as cynical about his chosen religion. He acknowledges that Christianity is quite useful as an opiate for the masses by some; gives ground on the opulence of the church, and expresses enthusiasm for Communism. At the same time, he philosophizes that God has no existence; it is existence; God is different for all individuals, incommunicable. Barny and Leon bond over these conversations, exploring the nature of faith and the Catholic church. This sounds like dry stuff, but the dialogue is sharp and involving, with palpable tension between characters building with expectation and, indeed, sexual charge. She desires him, and so much of his reserved demeanor suggests this desire is reciprocated, but this being a Jean-Pierre Melville film, there is no simple outcome or cheap release. Despite being concerned with weighty questions about the nature of God, the tone is anything but funereal. The language somewhere between blithe and mischievous, the characters witty, and there is a real sense of humor at play. At first she taunts him, but he gradually becomes a confidante and an object of love.
Barny could be a substitute for the audience as much as a character in her own right; one can see many motivations for what she thinks and why she eventually considers conversion from devout atheism to Christianity. Is it fear of the unknown, did Leon break through her intellectual defenses, out of love for this Citizen Priest, or has the oppressive nature of her environment worn her down? None of this is made clear, and it is fair to say that any person who has made a concrete decision on what their view of God’s existence or nonexistence cannot be clear on their motivations. Human reasoning is by nature a black box, colored by diffuse inputs that cannot be defined in any useful way. Barny is feeling her way through her beliefs, and through life in general; one feels that her conclusion regarding religion is probably one of the few times she has tried to be final about anything.
Leon Morin symbolizes what she has not; resolution. She has nobody, is distanced from people, argues in favor of the Resistance while refusing to join it, and in general is as linked to others as oil is to water. Leon stands firmly on philosophical grounds, performs his job well as a priest, harbors Jews, cranked out baptismal certificates to hide other Jews in the community, and provides Barny with an outlet and a way to interact. The story may be one way to touch the ghosts in the audience, those people who manage to live their entire lives without committing to anything of importance, suffering no loss but exacting no victory either. More importantly, Leon Morin, Priest explores themes both religious and existential without becoming lost in the ideas. Despite the lofty concepts, the film stays grounded, living well within the lives of the characters. The subtle touches are what makes the film a superlative character study, for either of the principals. For Barny, her voiceover narration only hints at her motivations, as she is only occasionally aware of what she is looking for. Leon betrays subtle hints – brushing Barny with his frock, the slight repairs of his clothing, his worldly attitude and practical approach – that his past sins inform his current belief system.
Melville takes the opportunity to explore subjects not often addressed in films of the era. In 1961, there was little acknowledgement in film of French collaboration with the Germans via Vichy administration. In Leon Morin, Priest, this is referenced frequently, along with French anti-Semitism. In one scene, a woman expresses loudly in an office that ‘the kikes are not important to French history’; an older gentleman gathers his things and leaves, leaving unsaid his religion. Just as rare a subject is the notion that Jews converted to Christianity to escape the Holocaust; in a wonderfully shot scene, children are baptized while the fathers watch from the shadows. Barny is in love with a woman in her office, and the feeling is more than mutual. A priest’s sexual desire becomes a theme later in the film, tying into weapons like knives and hatchets that often seem to share the frame with Leon. She prays to a God she barely believes in – “Grant my wish just once… and blessed be the everlasting torment.” She attempts to grab his hand, perhaps hoping to drag him into her bedroom by force, and he pulls away a little too quickly. Clearly, his mind was in a similar place.
Leon Morin, Priest resists easy characterization. The characters are restrained, their thoughts hidden; the themes considered are as vast as oceans yet remain within grasp in playful realms of dialogue; the human desires are as difficult define as they are easy to understand. At its center, the Priest is the solid bedrock, resolute in his comfortable beliefs. All the same, much of his emotions are shaken to the core by Barny, and he reveals his soul at the end. Not in words, but with the bare floor of his flat, his only possessions a lantern, a plate, and a bag with a couple of garments. Consistent with his vows, he has laid aside all that life does not absolutely require, and he is left on the far shore to regard what he has shed. Melville always was adept with tragic figures, and it is difficult to imagine a more tragic life than one of service to faith. To have nothing, desire nothing, and anticipate a reward of nothing is to deny what makes us human. In a way, this film explores what one must consider when embarking on such an arduous journey, and Melville does this so compellingly, we never want to arrive.