Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961) (aka The Forgiven Sinner)
One of the two most unusual features by Jean-Pierre Melville (the other one being the incredible The Silence of the Sea (1949), also set during the German occupation of France), The Forgiven Sinner (1961), is also one of the director’s many fine films. Ingeniously mixing the flamboyance of the then nascent Nouvelle Vague, through its casting, (partial) location shoot and non-classical cutting, and the revered tradition of the European art cinema and the studio cinema of the United States, in its classical staging, expressionist lighting and production design, understated performances and non-modernist literalism, Melville, perhaps inadvertently, plays with the audience’s perception of his film. The Forgiven Sinner is set in a little town in France, towards the end of the Second World War, and tells the tale of pastor Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose New Wave image is cleverly subverted here), who indirectly participates in the French resistance by sheltering Jews, and a Communist woman Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) who seems to be attracted to him. What begins as a series of witty conversations between a reasonable theist and a staunch atheist gets complexly interwoven with the politics of France at large as the characters equate, in both metaphorical and concrete senses, conscious resistance to physical temptation with resistance to imperial occupation and the guilt of desire with the guilt of collaboration. Melville’s direction, however, remains non-judgmental and brilliantly keeps remarking, through a spectacular interplay of avant-garde editing and meticulous mise en scène, the ironies underlying the characters and their situations and how, in fact, Léon and Barny are both on the wrong sides.