Robert Bresson: The Patron-Saint of Cinema

Trying to think of a good topic for the Film+Faith Blog-a-thon that’s been happening over at Strange Culture these past two days has been hard. Like really hard. Just read any of the other entries and you can see why.

But then the topic in my film class this week was and I knew exactly what, rather who, I was going to write about:

Robert Bresson

As I’ve seen Robert Bresson films (which in all honesty has only been two, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket) the more I realize that Bresson is one of the greatest (arguably the greatest) filmmaker of all time.

Before I begin discussing Bresson, I need to mention a bit about European and Asian Art Cinema.

Art Cinema refers to the period in film history from the late 1940s to the early 1960s when European and Asian cinema began to change the face of world cinema. Art Cinema was the result of Italian Neo-realism and like neorealism is strongly connected to World War II and the Holocaust.

These films, directed by some of the greatest filmmakers of all time (Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Luchino Visconti, Jacques Tati, Jean-Luc Godard, and Robert Bresson) were the first feature films that were made as art.

Earlier film styles, German Expressionism, Surrealism and Impressionism as well as philosophical movements from the 19th century, phenomenology and existentialism (Sartre, Nietzsche, and Camus) heavily influenced these filmmakers. Art Cinema, thus, deals with the idea that there is a transcendent reality, a sense that there is more than just us, and that we should be engaging in the world.

Robert Bresson, along with French theorist Andre Bazin and maybe even Ingmar Bergman, were Christian existentialists, meaning that they believed in the existence in God BUT also the idea that we will never know this God.

Because of his incorporation of his Christian existentialist beliefs and Catholic themes in his films as well as his overall contribution to the art of film, Bresson has been called a patron-saint of cinema.

During World War II, Bresson had been a member of the French resistance and been imprisoned in a concentration camp. He began making films in the 1940s (Les Anges du péché and Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne). These two films have hints of later Bressonian techniques (the use of sound) and themes (redemption and salvation), but are for the most part, they are examples of classical filmmaking.

It is Bresson’s next eleven features that have come to define his career and style. They are all about a psychological escape and the freedom associated with the act of escaping. 1951’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest; top left) and 1956’s Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (literally A Condemned Man Escapes, but better known as A Man Escaped; right), explicitily feature Bresson’s style: the use of non-professional actors, little dialogue, sound that never overlaps with the image, and religious themes.

Three of his works, Les Anges du Peche, Diary of a Country Priest, and The Trial of Joan of Arc, take place within a Catholic context. In these films, Catholicism presents itself by the way characters simply surrender themselves to fare.

In fact, Bressonian characters often have no apparent reasons for acting they way they do. Pickpocket (bottom left) is a great example of this, when the narrator states his intentions but ends up doing the opposite. They act simple because that is the way their lives have been mapped out.

In this sense God, at least according to Bresson, is just the way things are.

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I really can’t go into much more detail than what I’ve written, but there is so much more that could be said about Robert Bresson. The fact that I even attempted to write something about him (in this very broad post) is either impressive, bad, or just means that I’ve lost my mind (most likely the best option).

Instead I’m going to direct you to several articles/books on Robert Bresson that will hopefully make up for my lack of knowledge/ability to provide more insight:

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer

Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film

Richard Hell, Consuming Passion: Bresson

Alan Pavelin, Robert Bresson

Paul Schrader, Transcedental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer