October 19, 2008


Finding God in Ordinary Life: The great filmmaker Robert Bresson sought to depict truth and goodness in a world where "things are going very badly." (Eric David, 09/16/08, Christianity Today)

In seeking to portray that "heart of the heart," Bresson once said, "I want to make people who see the film feel the presence of God in ordinary life."

In his 70s, Bresson published a series of Ecclesiastes-like
observations on filmmaking, titled Notes sur le Cinématographe (Notes
on Cinematography) that is revered to this day as one of the best
manuals on filmmaking by one of the masters.

Bresson has influenced filmmakers as diverse as Kieslowski, Malle,
Fassbinder, Bertolucci, Mann, Siegel, Jarmusch and even, to some
extent, Scorsese, who observed: "Bresson focuses on the moments that happen between the ones that appear in most other movies." The
filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut had to disavow his early
opinion that Bresson's ascetic aesthetic would not catch on. Agnieska
Holland said, "For me, Bresson is one of the giants of the last fifty
years of cinema. Maybe the giant."

"Where have all the great ones gone?" Andrei Tarkovsky asked in his diary. "Where are Rossellini, Cocteau, Renoir, Vigo? The great—who are poor in spirit? Where has poetry gone? Money, money, money and fear … Fellini is afraid, Antonioni is afraid … The only one who is afraid of nothing is Bresson."

Although he rejected the label, Bresson was in many respects a Jansenist, an ascetic strain of Catholicism, similar to Calvinism in its focus on predestination and the un-deservedness of grace. Ironically, Bresson wrote, but never filmed, a life of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits—the Jansenists' theological arch-enemies. "In La Vie de Saint Ignace, which I came close to filming a long time ago, there is an idea of predestination," he told an interviewer shortly before his death. "Ignatius Loyola turns up by accident, does not achieve much himself, but finds the right people to surround himself with and founds the Jesuit order." The film was dropped by the studio in favor of adapting Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest.

In the mid 1960s, Dino de Laurentiis planned a series of films based
on the Bible, featuring top directors of the day, including Huston,
Visconti, Welles and Fellini. When Bresson, slated to direct Genesis,
told de Laurentiis that he planned to film it in Hebrew and Aramaic,
and wouldn't show any animals on Noah's Ark, only their footprints in
the sand, he was fired. Huston took over and The Bible: In The
Beginning, was released, but did not perform well enough to justify
the other directors helming their respective films. Bresson yearned to
film Genesis the rest of his life, but it never came to pass.

Though he stopped going to mass later in life, Bresson pointed to
numinous experiences in his past as proof of God's existence. But he
was no evangelist, whether his films depicted religious figures or

In her famous essay "Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,"
Susan Sontag said, "Bresson is interested in the forms of spiritual
action—in the physics, as it were, rather than in the psychology, of
souls… . Bresson's Catholicism is a language for rendering a certain
vision of human action, rather than a 'position' that is stated."

Bresson's 40-year career resulted in 13 films, and his life spanned
nearly the entire 20th century (1901-1999). He trained as an artist
before switching to writing, and then directing his only comedy, a
short, Les Affaires Publiques (1934). After a stint as a German POW
during World War II, his films turned more somber. Sontag noted that
all of Bresson's films have the theme of "confinement and liberty."

A Man Escaped is especially good.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2008 9:27 PM
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