First frost stew
I’d been feeling very discouraged, and I thought I wanted to watch something light-hearted and stupid and funny, to forget about feeling disappointed for a while. But we didn’t have something lighthearted and stupid and funny, we had the exact opposite of that. We had Diary of a Country Priest
, by Bresson, and it turned out that this movie was exactly what I needed. The film is long and slow and dreamlike, it’s narrated from the diary of a priest new to a small town–his first parish. “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insightful secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.” But the film is full of mystery! It’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, but in such a gentle, soft-spoken way, it’s quietly bewildering. At times it seems like a suspense film, a noir film, Gaslight or Rebecca. The priest faces antagonism from his parish, and we don’t know why. They suspect him of wrongdoing, he’s accused of terrible things, but we don’t fully know what they are. He’s accused of being a drunk, but it’s also possible that the wine he drinks might be bad in some way, or might even be poisoned. It’s never clear if all if this is in his head or if it’s real, and conversations with others rarely clear up the confusion. In his monologue he hints at events and confrontations that we never actually see. Of course, on an overtly religious level the film is about a man struggling with his faith, which is his job. He despairs of his ability to pray, and he expresses doubt when he should be professing his complete assurance. This childlike frankness extends to all of his actions. And like a child, it seems as though everything that people tell him comes from a different world, all the advice he’s given seems a little doubtful or strange, as it must seem to a child when somebody tells them to do something they don’t understand. He seems frustratingly weak, sometimes, but like a child, he has a strong voice inside that tells him who he is and what he needs. And, like a child, he makes questionable decisions sometimes about his well-being. The priest lives on wine, bread, and fruit, because he has a sensitive stomach, and this strange diet and his constant pain leave him dizzy and faint. The film has a beautiful blurred glow, it’s almost out of focus–apparently the result of a poorly attached filter, a mistake which the director loved despite the cameraman’s protest. The landscape is wintery and soft, and the film is visually beautiful. The priest’s face is luminous with a sad quiet glow, and we only see him smile one time, when he’s given a ride on the back of a motorcycle. He’s as childish in his pleasure as he has been in his pain all along. And when the man who gives him the ride tells him that he imagines they could be friends in different circumstances, he’s endearingly doubtful and glad. Because he’s incredibly alone, he’s completely isolated, and more than anything the film felt to me to be a portrait of loneliness. All of his doubts and fears and bad nights and strange moments of despair and weakness feel so much worse because he has nobody to comfort him. I want somebody to care for him like a child, like the sick child that he is, but despite rare moments of comfort and connection, this doesn’t happen. I’m not religious in any Christian sense of the world, but I find the priest’s search for faith and grace beautiful on a human level, or perhaps on the level of a human searching for something bigger than themselves, whatever name we happen to give to that. I spoke last week about the idea of soul being the seat of a person’s emotions, feelings, or thoughts or the moral or emotional part of a person’s nature or the central or inmost part of a person’s being, and I think that is something this priest would understand. His solemnity and his honesty raise him above the petty bickering of his parishioners. He doesn’t bother to defend himself from their accusations, because his understanding is on a completely different level. When he realizes this he says, beautifully
, “I’d discovered with something bordering on joy that I had nothing to say.” I love
that. The film is full of unexpectedly beautiful statements like this. His “old master” an odd sort of priest who appears throughout the film, follows a stream of advice with the words, “And now, work. Do little things from day to day while you wait. Little things don’t seem like much, but they bring peace.” I think that’s true in all of our lives, no matter what our circumstance no matter what our faith. As does his further statement, “Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow, because in this sorry world, the night undoes the work of the day.” For the priest, the little thing that brings peace and order is his writing. He writes because he needs to, with a sort of desperate compulsion. At times he scribbles out what he has written, as if the words are too powerful or too doubtful or too strange. And his quiet voice, narrating the action sometimes in concert with the actions we see, sometimes just off, before or after the action, is dreamlike and compelling. Such a strange film, so beautifully full of questions and doubts. In the end the priest is given absolution by a friend who has fallen from his faith, and he says, “”What does it matter? All is grace.”
My friend Diane sent me an e-mail wishing me a “happy first frost,” and asking if I’d make some sort of stew for her. So I made this first frost stew. So-called not just because it’s warm and comforting, but also because it’s four kinds of white, flecked with a little bit of green. Butterbeans, small white beans, potatoes and rutabaga mixed with lemon thyme and kale. Warm but brignt.
Here’s Jesus by the Velvet Underground. “Help me in my weakness because I’m falling out of grace,” could be a line from the movie.