Léon Morin, Priest is the excellent character study between a young widow and a priest during the Nazi occupation of France. She, an atheist, is practically forced into the church to convert to Catholicism and avoid persecution from the Nazis.
While she does follow through the nominal process of conversion, she is a reluctant party, with many serious doubts and critiques of the Church and of religion in general. The priest, surprisingly, both shares and understands many of her questions, with himself combating his own fears and concerns about religion. We get many superb scenes of intelligent, yet realistic, dialogue between two strong-willed and sharp-witted parties.
The performances are excellent as well, with Emanuelle Riva as the heroine and a handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo as the young priest. They play their characters with the fullest, bringing them to life both with charisma and insecurity. The subtleties of their performances are so impressive, it’s easy to forget we are watching a movie.
Director Melville is heavy on “showing, not telling,” (which he exemplifies in his minimalist Army of Shadows and Le Cercle Rouge, neither of which I particularly enjoyed), but it works here – we do see their friendship develop over the course of two hours. When they must part at the film’s end, we do feel their sadness and the loss of their relationship. Léon Morin, Priest is a solid, entertaining and stimulating film that maintains our attention and breaks our heart.