Leon Morin, Priest on TCM

Criterion's DVD/Blu-ray debut

Jean-Pierre Melville made his reputation as a defiantly independent director of cool gangster thrillers, beginning with elegant, elegiac Bob le Flambeur (1955) and culminating in the austere masterpiece Le Samourai (1967), with Alain Delon as an existential assassin, and the heist classic Le Cercle Rouge (1970). But the director, who during World War II fought in the Resistance, worked for French intelligence in London and served in the Free French forces in the liberation of Italy and France, also made three films about life in Nazi-occupied France, including his debut feature Le Silence de la Mer (1947).

Léon Morin, Priest (1961), an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by Béatrix Beck, was his second film about the occupation. The traditional details of the occupation–the physical presence of German soldiers on the streets, the black market, the activities of Resistance and the deportations of Jewish citizens–are in margins of the central story, and that, in an unexpected way, is the point. Life has become normalized, and what a strange, anxious normal it is, a disconnected existence on hold.

Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as the unconventional, at times radical young priest Léon Morin but you could say he is the object of the film while Emmanuelle Riva plays the subject: Barny, the young widow of a French Communist and a mother who sends her half-Jewish daughter France to the country to protect her from the Nazis. Riva’s Barny narrates in a pithy, matter-of-fact manner, offering simple facts (“Our city had been occupied by Italian troops,” she observes in the opening scenes, and later simply says “The deportations began”) with no personal commentary. She’s no Resistance fighter but neither is she a collaborator; she and her friends baptize their children as cover and perhaps it is her resentment at having to undergo such a ritual that inspires her, and atheist, to go to confession with the express purpose of telling off the new young priest.

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DVDs for 07/20/10 – The Runaways and Panic in the Toybox

I shine a light on two ends of the artistic spectrum on DVD and Blu-ray in spotlight pieces on my blog this week—the cinematic glories of Powell and Pressberger’s The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus and the exploitation creativity of the Roger Corman-produced drive-in knock-offs Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World. Here’s what else has been released.

Meet the Runaways

The Runaways (Sony) – The Runaways may have been more phenomenon than phenomenal but the hard-rocking quintet of teenage girls made their mark on the music world with a blast of grrrl power and teen rebellion. They were tossed into the culture in 1976 as a gimmick—the original all-girl rock band (and I do mean “girl” – they were all under eighteen when they released their first single)—and they delivered a mix of punk attitude and sexual tease. More importantly, they were inspiration to aspiring female rockers all over. The promotion was largely exploitation but the music—their music—was their voice of frustration and empowerment in a male-dominated world.

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