Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

Reflections on Bresson 4: Grace

Julian of Norwich (1343-4043), author of ‘The Revelation of Divine Love’, famously wrote:

“Because of our good Lord’s tender love to all those who shall be saved, he quickly comforts them, saying, ‘The cause of all this pain is sin. But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said so kindly and without a hint of blame to me or to any who shall be saved.”


Although Bresson’s Catholicism often has to be winkled out of his films, this link between sin and comfort puts me in mind of an explicit Catholic moment in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950), taken from the explicitly Catholic novel Georges Bernanos: the central scene of confrontation between the priest and the countess, spiritual power and secular power. In it, the priest exorcises – there are supernatural overtones to the way Bernanos tells it, much less so in Bresson – the pain buried in the countess’s psyche, deriving from the death of her son as a little boy several years previously. In the scene, the priest ‘lifts’ her from a state of sin to a state of grace, from suffering to release, so that she crosses some boundary between pain and wellness. This is the Julian idea: the pain of sin can ultimately be cauterised leaving the sufferer calm. The greater the sin the greater the calm.


(Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ comes to mind too. In Act 3, the king Amfortas, broken in body and spirit and bearing the burden of sin and pain for the whole community of knights, is released by Parsifal’s act of healing into a final calm, a nirvana almost, the ecstasy of which Wagner conveys in his music.)