Studiocanal are releasing a set of six key films of celebrated director Jean-Pierre Melville in his centenary year, part II is, Leon Morin, Priest.
Jean-Paul Belmondo (Le Professionnel, Le Doulos) plays the priest in question. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour, Three Colours: Blue) is Barny, a bored and, some may say, sexually frustrated widow living with her daughter in the same village.
She is a communist, common in France during the German occupation, and we’re in a small town in the French Alps occupied by Italians with large feathers in their hats who let scenes play and people get on with their lives to a large extent.
Things change when the Germans move in however. The Nazis take the town, killing the Italians and begin rounding up the Jews.
Barny and some of her friends, baptise their children, in the hope it will protect them from the Nazis. The men-folk coming into town from the surrounding forests before heading back to continue the resistance.
Barny, with a devilish twinkle in her eye, decides that religion is no excuse for war and sets out to find a priest with whom she can argue the point.
She wonders into a church and, selecting purely based on name – her belief that parents who have named their son “Leon” must be working-class – she enters confession with Leon Marin.
Her opening lines leave him in no doubt why she’s here: “Religion is the opiate of the masses”, she whispers, hoping for a fight. Much to her surprise however, he agrees with a lot of what she is saying and after her confession he offers to lend her some books to which she agrees.
They begin meeting regularly in Morin’s room, Melville playing with our expectations as to what two people, alone in a room, will get up to. Particularly as Barny herself has told us, in voiceover, how obsessed she is with the director’s personal assistant, Sabine, Nicole Mirel (A Touch Of Treason, The Dance Of Death). Melville again playing with our perceptions as Sabine leans over Barny, unnecessarily close, her breasts touching her neck.
Melville leads us up this merry path but changes gear when Leon and Barny begin debating the books he lends her, discussions around God and the Catholic faith abound. The passion is never gone, Melville gives us close-ups of Leon’s clothing as Barny notices the smallest details, but it takes a back seat.
Leon is tested and pushed, both morally and ethically, whilst Barny tells tales of masturbating with a piece of wood as an example. But he never falters, stout in his beliefs and feelings towards the church.
The film throws up some interesting questions, Leon seemingly has an answer for anything that’s thrown at him, and Melville teases and toys with us, the viewer, and our expectations.
Leon Morin, Priest will not be to everyone’s taste, I’m not religious myself and found it hard going at times.
The Blu-ray is, as you’d expect, a crystal clear transfer, a new 4k restoration, you have a choice of French or German language with English subtitles. There is also a master class with Philippe Labro (friend and apprentice of Melville) and Remy Grumbach (Melville’s nephew) in which the two discuss his movies in front of an audience.
Depending on your stance, this may not be the easiest film to enter into the world of jean-Pierre Melville, but it’s a fascinating start.
Melville, The Essential Collection boxset is released on December 11th 2017 and features brand-new 4k restorations and new extras. The films included are: Le Doulos, Bob Le Flambeur, Leon Morin, Priest, L’Armee Des Ombres, The Cercle Rouge and Un Flic.