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Leon Morin Priest (MFA)

by Phil Hall
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Sep 7, 2009
Leon Morin Priest (MFA)

It is easy to understand why Jean-Pierre Melville's 1961 Leon Morin, Priest did not receive a U.S. theatrical premiere at the time of its initial award-honored European release. The film's excess of verbosity centering on issues of Communism and Christianity, coupled with the presence of an unapologetically bisexual leading female character, wasn't exactly what New Frontier America was ready for.

At long last, the film is now being made available for big screen viewing - and, quite frankly, its absence from this side of the Atlantic may not have been such a bad thing.

Set in a French Alpine village during World War II, the film's focus is Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a young Communist widow with a small daughter. As the village comes under German occupation, Barny and other single mothers whose children have Jewish or Communist fathers hastily arrange for baptisms. Barny, who has been absent from church since her youth, decides to take her political convictions into a confessional and challenge a priest using Marxist propaganda.

However, she meets her match when the handsome young priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo) circumvents her political screed. The remainder of the film becomes something of a running dialogue as Barny and the priest talk about religion and the human experience. And they talk, and talk, and talk...

Melville may have been too inspired by Riva's narration-heavy performance in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" - in this film, she is almost talking, either through off-camera narration or in increasingly bizarre conversations. At one point, she babbles on how she is infatuated with a female co-worker in her office - although she bristles at the suggestion of a sexual attraction, she nonetheless moons about the woman's Amazonian aura. (Uh huh.)

Of course, having Belmondo as a priest makes it obvious that Barny's blatant attraction to him goes beyond mere intellectual curiosity. For his part, the good father keeps his vows of celibacy. If Barny cannot have the flesh, she settles for the spirit - abruptly abandoning Marx for the Man from Nazareth. Again, uh huh.

"Léon Morin, Priest" was reportedly three hours in its original running time before Melville cut it down to its two-hour length. The idea of having to sit through an extra hour of this monotonous production could easily jolt anyone to run to their nearest confessional instead of the local theater.

Phil Hall is the author of "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time

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