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Empathy Machine: Diary of a Country Priest

Roger Ebert died ten years ago today. He was a friend and mentor to a lot of people. I might have described Roger as a friend and mentor even if I hadn’t ended up getting to know him, taking part in EbertFest at the invitation of Chaz Ebert, then becoming editor-in-chief of this site for a few years after his passing, because Roger was one of those rare writers who seemed to be talking not to some large, faceless audience, but to you alone. 

Chaz asked everyone affiliated with the site to commemorate the occasion by writing on the theme of empathy. I thought back to figure out exactly when I began to associate “empathy” with Roger specifically, and realized that it was when I read his 2011 essay on Robert Bresson’s drama “Diary of a Country Priest,” nearly a quarter century after seeing it for the first time.

My first viewing was as a freshman film student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1987. I was living at home with my mother and stepfather and commuting to and from campus on a bike. Before the classroom screening of Bresson’s film, the professor talked about Bresson’s “austere” style, to get us to think about the relationship between form and content. As a film production student, I was interested in that—and I was interested in the movie itself, although I found it tough to get into at first because it was slow and quiet and in French and I was 18. When I discovered that it was one of the primary inspirations for Paul Schrader’s “Taxi Driver” screenplay, I decided to watch it again, and afterward thought about the relationship between form and content a bit more. “Diary of a Country Priest” ended up on a mental list of films that I respected but didn’t love.

Decades later, I read Roger’s review of “Diary of a Country Priest,” and it was then that I began to love the movie. 

The review begins, like so many of his pieces, by dropping you right into the film’s fictional world. He reimagines the movie in his memory. He does this without technical terminology, or even a recitation of basic factual information that you usually find in the first paragraph of a review, such as the title of the film, the director, the lead actors, the locale, the genre, and so on.

“The young priest only smiles once,” is how he starts–a typically terse, understatedly lyrical Roger Ebert opening. Then he continues: “It is on the day he leaves the cruel country town to catch a train and see a doctor. A passing motorcyclist gives him a lift to the station, and as he climbs on behind him we see a flash of the boy inside the sad man. It is a nice day, it's fun to race though the breeze, and he is leaving behind the village of Ambricourt.”

Right from the start, Roger tells you that this is a movie about a man whose identity is defined by a job and a place that doesn’t make him happy, and can’t breathe and feel joy until he gets away from it. This is a great way to pull the reader into a review, but most critics don’t do it. A lot of reviews write about characters as if they’re abstractions, or pawns on the chessboard of plot, rather than as representations of people who could exist, or metaphors for struggles we all have have in everyday life. Roger didn’t just write about the formal and narrative aspects of Bresson’s film and how they intertwine; he saw deeply into the main character, so deeply that he appears to have recognized himself in the priest, and did it in a way that moves me again whenever I re-read his writing. 

But what made the piece lodge in my mind and reorient my perception of the movie was two sentences: “The locals gossip that he's a drunk, because of his diet, but we never see him drunk. Bresson often fills the frame with his face, passive, and the stare of his unfocused eyes.” 

Roger was a recovering alcoholic. He talked about it in blog posts and in his memoir “Life Itself,” and it’s described in the same-titled Steve James documentary about Roger and Chaz. That’s why I’m moved thinking about Roger watching Bresson’s film and realizing, “Somehow, that person is me.” I was always surprised and then gratified whenever he put a piece of himself in his reviews, but especially when he wrote about alcoholism, because I was the child of alcoholics and did not realize or admit it until later in life. Roger didn’t, either. He’d been in recovery for a long time before he started to publicly discuss it. Bresson’s film is not a story about a guy who drinks too much, but part of the process of projecting yourself onto movies is seeing your own story there even if it’s not your story.

“He is thin and weak,” he writes, “he coughs up blood, he grows faint in the houses of parishioners, one late night he falls in the mud and cannot get up. It is a bleak winter. The landscape around his little church is barren. There is often no sign of life except for the distant, unfriendly barking of dogs.”

It’s a Bressonian review of a Bresson film, and as such, it can spark a different understanding of how films can communicate information, and how that can reflect the way people and works of art hide things—but not so carefully that we can’t see them if we generate what artists sometimes call “imaginative empathy,” and project ourselves onto a character, then look at the movie around them, and think about what’s there, and not there, and what it means.

Both my mother and my stepfather were alcoholics, of what’s often called the “high functioning” sort. Most of the people who dealt with them in everyday, workaday life didn’t think of them as alcoholics. They weren’t drinking cheap wine all the time because they had a stomach condition. They drank every day or night for a certain number of hours. They were productive citizens, as they say. They only occasionally had terrifying, endless screaming matches that escalated to violence, with my mom and my stepfather hitting each other and throwing things, and my stepfather knocking down doors she’d locked to keep him out, or putting his fist through drywall, or sometimes firing off guns at baseboards or at the ceiling to express his anger. 

I didn’t tell very many of my college friends about what I was going through living at home in the house where I grew up, and when I did, I left out the worst of it, because it was so embarrassing and traumatizing. I don’t believe I recognized the two of them as being substance abusers with possible undiagnosed mental illness until I was much older. This is partly because they were professional musicians in the 1970s and ‘80s and there was a lot of drinking and drug use going on in that world, and a lot of other stuff that I’ll get into some other time. I had a warped idea of what “regular” life was like. I was in denial. And when I finally got out of that house, I was as relieved as the priest leaving Ambricourt.

Some of my friends later told me that even though I didn’t say much about that experience, they knew whatever was happening at my house was bad. Secrets were kept, by me and my brother, and also by my mother and stepfather. Certain things were not discussed. That’s not to say that people who knew us didn’t know about some things, or infer them. But they weren’t discussed. Something about the way Bresson defines the priest in his movie illuminates how people can see things even if they aren’t shown and commented upon. You can see what’s not there if you pay attention. The ellipses in the storytelling let you find yourself in it.

Roger helped me see the movie in a new, personal way, see past the things my film professor said were most important, by treating “Diary of a Country Priest” mainly as a story about an unhappy man with a complicated personality and a conflicted relationship to faith. For all of his knowledge of film history and style and theory, he correctly recognized that people watch films mainly for the stories and characters, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who speaks to their own situation, whatever it may be. 

He saw himself in the movie, and he helped me see my parents and myself in it as well.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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