Eye For Film >> Movies >> Leon Morin Priest (1961) Film Review
Léon Morin Prêtre is one of those typically continental arthouse films which is ostensibly a serious metaphysical meditation, but which sweetens the pill with lashings of sex and melodrama. Early on our heroine, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), reveals that she is having lesbian fantasies about an Amazonian colleague. As they gaze at each other across the office, the camera lingers, relishing the frisson.
The film is set in occupied France. With the men away, Barny and the other women veer between fear and ennui, frustrated by their loneliness and uncertain future. A handsome priest arrives, played by New Wave pinup Jean-Paul Belmondo. Barny is a confirmed atheist, and decides to give him a piece of her mind, but he persuades her to reconsider.
They start meeting regularly to discuss theology and the sexual tension hangs in the air as they argue over the value of religion and justifications for faith. Eventually Barny is converted, but her motivation is unclear, as she has fallen in love with the priest.
This film was a big hit on its release in France, thanks partly to the well-timed casting of Belmondo and Riva, who had enjoyed recent New Wave hits with À Bout De Souffle and Hiroshima Mon Amour respectively. Belmondo is a charismatic presence, despite not doing very much acting, and Riva is compelling, giving a nuanced, emotional performance.
What contemporary critics seem to have missed is how melodramatic the film is. Despite its intellectual pretensions, it's essentially a story of forbidden love, one that would be at home in any soap opera. On these terms it's entertaining enough and shot with some panache, although the theological discussions quickly begin to grate. As such, it doesn't hold much interest for modern audiences, although its Forties-style glamour does help to pass the time.Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2004