Blu-ray Review Léon Morin, Priest Blu-ray Review

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Matt Hough, Jul 22, 2011.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Matt Hough
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    Léon Morin, Priest (Blu-ray)
    Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1961

    Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1   1080p   AVC codec
    Running Time: 117 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: PCM 1.0 French
    Subtitles: English

    Region: A
    MSRP: $ 39.95

    Release Date: July 26, 2011

    Review Date: July 22, 2011

    The Film


    Even though much of his cinematic reputation is built around a sterling series of gangster noirs he made in the 1960s, occasionally the astute filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville surprised his public with something decidedly offbeat and unexpected. Les Enfants Terrible, his film version of a Cocteau play, was one such one-off, and Army of Shadows took the hard-boiled tone of his noirs and transferred it to a period Resistance story. Perhaps most unusual for him, however, was his 1961 drama Léon Morin, Priest, a sober, thoughtful examination of spiritual awakening and desire that nimbly tiptoes around potential melodramatic conventions and emerges as a strong albeit measured character-driven dramatic vehicle for two French superstars of their day.

    During the final months of the Italian and German occupation of France, widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) develops a fixation on a fellow female worker (Nicole Mirel) in her correspondence school. Though she’s an atheist, she seeks comfort in her frustration from Father Léon Morin, a devastatingly handsome but earnest Catholic priest in her village of St. Bernard. Over the course of their months of solitary counseling and reading of religious books loaned to her by Father Morin, she develops a zeal for Catholicism and eventually converts. Behind her newly achieved conversion, however, lie growing feelings of ardor for Father Morin who seems closer to her than any other female in the village but who has never even suggested romantic overtures to her. Even after the liberation, Barny continues to dream about Father Morin’s abandoning his vows even for one passionate encounter with her, a hope that seems less likely to happen with each passing day given the change in venues for them both with the cessation of fighting and their superiors’ needs for them elsewhere in France.

    Based on the novel by Béatrix Beck, Melville’s screenplay focuses clearly on the Barny character seeing only the events of the war’s final months through her eyes and experiencing her desires and jealousies and angers and joys directly. We have no idea if Father Morin is undergoing any agonies of contrition or soul-searching excursions into the sanctity of his position when he’s not in Barny’s presence (though we’re shown two examples of his coiled tension at different points when confronted with her questioning their mutual feelings). Thus the frustrating sexual strain especially on her part is electrifying though much of the movie, and it’s transferred uniquely to the audience through Melville’s taut, fluid direction. His camera moves are never garish or haphazard, and the leisurely sense of calm with which the film has been shot complements the underlying personal anxiety that’s going on, not only between the two protagonists, but from the surrounding occupation forces which drive people to hide Jews in their homes or mask their children’s ethnicity through fake documents or false baptisms.

    In addition to the two sexually charged sequences between Morin and Barny, there are two other moments that are real standouts: Barny’s uncomfortable encounter with two American GIs that suggests imminent rape and is ripe with disquiet and a late eerie exploration of Morin’s apartment where Melville’s camera prowls around the space where we’ve spent much of the film’s near-two hour running time only to find empty walls, scattered papers on the floor, and a chilling wind whistling through the windows. There are those who will find the opening hour slow, especially with the elaborate discussions of theology and sin which highlight all of the debates between Barny and Léon, but what is said is just as important as their body language and the growing feelings she visually expresses toward this unique man. Melville was never a director to rush his effects and thus his results are always more vital and illuminating at his films' conclusions.

    The astonishing performance in the film, of course, belongs to Jean-Paul Belmondo, so different is it from anything else he was playing at the time. He’s just as charismatic as he was in the more obviously sexual Breathless, quite a feat for the actor who is never out of his clothes here, and yet there is a striking sense of his depths of feeling and raw emotions that he’s barely containing beneath his utterly composed surface. Emmanuelle Riva gives an incredible performance as well, carefully navigating her character’s emotional journey though both dogma and humanity without missing a step. In a tiny cameo role, Howard Vernon makes a striking impression as a gentle German officer who takes the time to show the human side of the Nazi occupiers.

    Video Quality


    The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and with a resolution of 1080p delivered via the AVC codec. It’s a beautiful black and white transfer with a striking grayscale rendering that offers excellent whites and good black levels. Sharpness is very strong, and apart from a scratch and an occasional dust speck, it’s an artifact-free transfer that will surely impress you. The white subtitles are usually easy to read. The film has been divided into 22 chapters.

    Audio Quality


    The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is very typical for its era with little on the low end of the sound spectrum and some distortion occasionally in the louder moments. Criterion’s engineers haven’t been able to remove the low level hiss that’s present and is easy to hear in quieter moments of the movie. There is also occasional soft crackle and some slight flutter, too, though these artifacts are rare. The haunting music by Martial Solal often makes a vivid impression.

    Special Features


    With the exception of the deleted scenes, all of the featurettes are presented in 1080i.

    A 1971 television interview on the French program JT19H15 features star Jean-Paul Belmondo and writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. In the brief excerpt, Belmondo discusses the change of pace role for him, and Melville insists he waited to film the book until a French star appeared who could do the role justice. It runs 4 ¾ minutes.

    Film scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers select scene commentary on eight scenes in the movie. Her knowledge of Melville’s oeuvre is extensive, and her comments are exacting in their analysis and opinion.

    Though the film originally ran over three hours, there are only two deleted scenes presented here, both in 1080p. They must be chosen individually and run 1 ½ and 2 ½ minutes respectively.

    The film’s theatrical trailer runs 3 ¼ minutes.

    The enclosed 29-page booklet includes the complete cast and crew list, some excellent black and white stills of the actors and director Melville at work, a critically appreciative essay on the movie by author Gary Indiana, and excerpts from Rui Nogueira’s interview book with Jean-Pierre Melville with Q&A concerning Léon Morin, Priest.

    The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

    In Conclusion

    4/5 (not an average)

    A real surprise and delight from director Jean-Pierre Melville is Léon Morin, Priest¸ a thoughtful and engaging character study that slowly commands one’s earnest attention. Criterion has done its usual fine job with transferring the film to high definition and offers some helpful bonus materials to extend the film’s effect on the viewer.  Recommended!

    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC

  2. Vegas 1

    Vegas 1 Supporting Actor

    Jun 23, 1999
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    Alvin Kuenster
    Thanks for the review Matt, I recently watched Army Of Shadows really enjoyed that one. I put Leon Morin, Priest in my rental queu, I was surprised Netflix had this as they are hit & miss on Criterion Blu-rays

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