Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson
A Spiritual Style in Film
Joseph Cunneen
Continuum, $29.95, 199 pp.

A consumptive priest drags himself down a country road and the autumn-stripped trees seem to murmur their kinship with the dying man. A bride joyfully jumps up and down on her bridal bed but soon her husband impassively remarks on the soundtrack that he threw cold water on her exhilaration. A sad-faced murderer taking refuge with a saintly woman spends a silent moment of communion with her by helping to hang her laundry; in the next scene, without explanation, he kills her and her entire family for a paltry sum of money, then, also without explanation, turns himself in to the police. No heartwarming music underscores the priest’s self-sacrifice. No heart-to-heart dialogue explains the marital problem. There is no gore in the massacre; a lamp knocked over does synecdochical duty for ax-shattered skulls.

These are scenes from films written and directed by the late Robert Bresson. Was there ever a body of cinematic work that needed helpful commentary more than the elliptical, lugubrious, humorless, yet-finally-deeply moving films by this French moviemaker?

Turn to the bibliography of Joseph Cunneen’s Robert Bresson and you see right away the gap this book fills. Though ninety-seven items are listed, at least forty-five remain untranslated from the French, and almost all the English-language writings are out of print. The latest full-length study, Keith Reader’s Robert Bresson (2000), is British and has no...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.