The Films of Robert Bresson

The Mozart of French cinema

The December 1999 death of Robert Bresson at the age of ninety-two represents the virtual end of the post-World War II era of internationally known film directors. Although Bresson never found the broad audience that made Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini household names, his reputation among movie professionals-Jean-Luc Godard called him "the Mozart of French cinema"-guarantees that his work will continue to be studied, especially by aspiring directors. And Bresson’s axiom that "the supernatural is only the real brought close up" suggests an additional reason to arrange retrospectives of his films and look at them more closely.
The relationship between movies and religion can be a treacherous one, often exploited by well-intentioned pastors looking to illustrate their sermons or teachers of religious studies, hoping to increase class enrollment. Bresson’s work doesn’t lend itself to such purposes. He is as little interested in conveying pious messages as in replicating surface realism; he wants the viewer to discover the interior meaning of the images he has arranged. He is known in the United States as the director of Diary of a Country Priest (1950). An examination of Bresson’s stylistic decisions shows how he transformed Georges Bernanos’s classic but apparently unfilmable novel into a credible and deeply affecting movie.

Despite the critical success of his first two films, The Angels of Sin (1943)...

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About the Author

Joseph Cunneen was founder and longtime editor of the ecumenical quarterly Cross Currents.