Robert Bresson is one of those directors film lovers inevitably discover, and his Christian faith, shaped by the traumas of World War II in France, make him especially fascinating to cinephiles with a taste for spiritual things. Recently New Yorker Video released one of Bresson's greatest films on DVD, 1957's A Man Escaped, and it's well worth renting or buying. This is a film you can return to over and over again, a stark and powerful experience that reveals layer after layer of mystery and understanding the more we consider it.
The "man" of the title is Fontaine, a French Resistance fighter locked away in a Nazi prison. We know from the blunt title and his past-tense narration that he has escaped and is recounting his story at some later time. Or do we? If we know his fate is secure, why do we feel such tension and suspense?
As relentless as the filmmaker's attention is to the inescapable physical realities of this prison—wood and iron and stone, fabric and wire and water on a face—we're also led constantly to question whether these are the only reality available to Fontaine, and maybe that's what makes us question whether he'll ultimately escape from the literal prison. Perhaps his escape will be spiritual, the kind of rebirth suggested in a Scripture smuggled to him on a scrap of paper: "You must be born from above." The film's subtitle undercuts the main title's apparent sense of certainty when it refers to that same passage in John, reminding us that God defies predictability: "the wind blows as it listeth." (Bresson, a master filmmaker whose Christianity is perhaps more integrated into his work than any other, loves titles that introduce notes of uncertainty which stand in tension with the "certainties" ...1
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A Man Escaped
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