The Underappreciated Giant of the French New Wave

Jean-Pierre Melville’s (1933-1973) Léon Morin, Prêtre (Léon Morin, priest) (1961), from his own screenplay, based on Béatrix’ Beck’s (1914-2008) autobiographical novel, will be revived at Film Forum from April 17 to April 23. Both the book and the film are constructed as a dialectical confrontation between a skeptical communist woman and an intellectual Catholic priest, with Emmanuelle Riva as the woman, and Jean-Paul Belmondo as the priest. Riva had just created a sensation in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), and Belmondo had just leaped to stardom in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), in which Melville himself had played a cameo part as a Rumanian poet interviewed at the Paris airport by Jean Seberg.

The setting of the film is a small French provincial town during and after the German Occupation. Henri Decae provided the ritualized cinematography in a series of short uninflected vignettes centered on a spiritual duel between a nonbeliever and a true believer. It further establishes Melville as the last to be discovered and appreciated giant of the French New Wave of the ’50s and ’60s.