Often called the patron saint of film, Robert Bresson treated film as a serious, almost sacred form of art. Instead of "cinema," Bresson preferred the term "cinematography," as we would use "photography" instead of "photos"—or worse, "pics." He believed that cinema, especially bad cinema, was "filmed theatre;" cinematography is "filming interior movement."

Bresson's intention was "not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that 'heart of the heart,' which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or philosophy, or by drama."

Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson

In seeking to portray that "heart of the heart," Bresson once said, "I want to make people who see the film feel the presence of God in ordinary life."

In his 70s, Bresson published a series of Ecclesiastes-like observations on filmmaking, titled Notes sur le Ciné matographe (Notes on Cinematography) that is revered to this day as one of the best manuals on filmmaking by one of the masters.

Bresson has influenced filmmakers as diverse as Kieslowski, Malle, Fassbinder, Bertolucci, Mann, Siegel, Jarmusch and even, to some extent, Scorsese, who observed: "Bresson focuses on the moments that happen between the ones that appear in most other movies." The filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut had to disavow his early opinion that Bresson's ascetic aesthetic would not catch on. Agnieska Holland said, "For me, Bresson is one of the giants of the last fifty years of cinema. Maybe the giant."

"Where have all the great ones gone?" Andrei Tarkovsky asked in his diary. "Where are Rossellini, Cocteau, Renoir, Vigo? The great—who are poor in spirit? Where has poetry gone? Money, money, money and fear … Fellini is afraid, Antonioni is afraid … The only one who is afraid of nothing is Bresson."

A Jansenist, Probably

Although he rejected the label, Bresson was in many respects a Jansenist, an ascetic strain of Catholicism, similar to Calvinism in its focus on predestination and the un-deservedness of grace. Ironically, Bresson wrote, but never filmed, a life of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits—the Jansenists' theological arch-enemies. "In La Vie de Saint Ignace, which I came close to filming a long time ago, there is an idea of predestination," he told an interviewer shortly before his death. "Ignatius Loyola turns up by accident, does not achieve much himself, but finds the right people to surround himself with and founds the Jesuit order." The film was dropped by the studio in favor of adapting Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest.

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In the mid 1960s, Dino de Laurentiis planned a series of films based on the Bible, featuring top directors of the day, including Huston, Visconti, Welles and Fellini. When Bresson, slated to direct Genesis, told de Laurentiis that he planned to film it in Hebrew and Aramaic, and wouldn't show any animals on Noah's Ark, only their footprints in the sand, he was fired. Huston took over and The Bible: In The Beginning, was released, but did not perform well enough to justify the other directors helming their respective films. Bresson yearned to film Genesis the rest of his life, but it never came to pass.

Though he stopped going to mass later in life, Bresson pointed to numinous experiences in his past as proof of God's existence. But he was no evangelist, whether his films depicted religious figures or not.

In her famous essay "Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson," Susan Sontag said, "Bresson is interested in the forms of spiritual action—in the physics, as it were, rather than in the psychology, of souls… . Bresson's Catholicism is a language for rendering a certain vision of human action, rather than a 'position' that is stated."

Bresson's Austere Style

Bresson's 40-year career resulted in 13 films, and his life spanned nearly the entire 20th century (1901-1999). He trained as an artist before switching to writing, and then directing his only comedy, a short, Les Affaires Publiques (1934). After a stint as a German POW during World War II, his films turned more somber. Sontag noted that all of Bresson's films have the theme of "confinement and liberty."

For Les Anges du Pé ché (1943) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), Bresson used professional actors, but would never do so again. He chose non-actors ("models," he called them), because they didn't have the habits of theatrical actors, who engaged in "competitions of grimaces." He has them speak in monotones, as if talking to themselves; they move slowly, deliberately. He shot scores of takes, breaking down all pretensions, to find the naked essence of the human being who stood before the camera.

Bresson also focused heavily on the soundtrack, recording his characters more in voice-over than in dialogue, flattening his images to bring out the sound. "The eye is lazy; the ear, on the contrary, invents," he told Jean Luc Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. "What is good, too, with sound is that it leaves the spectator free."

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Bresson disliked writing and filming, but loved editing, likening the cinematic workflow to the cycles of life and death: "From start to finish, films are a series of births and resurrections. What lies dead on paper is reborn during the shoot, and dead images are reborn in the cutting room."

His film Diary of a Country Priest (1951)—based on the novel Journal d'un Curé de Champagne by Georges Bernanos—tells the tale of an ordinary country priest, dying of cancer, trying to save his troubled town. French film critic André Bazin noted "the analogies with Christ that abound toward the end of the film." He further observed: "In no sense is it true to say that the life of the [priest] is an imitation of its divine model; rather it is a repetition and a picturing forth of that life. Each bears his own cross and each cross is different." The priest's, and the film's, final words are: "All is grace."

Bresson's most pronounced treatment of predestination, A Man Escaped, tells us how it ends before it begins: the prisoner escapes. The subtitle of the film, "The Spirit Breathes Where It Will," are similar to Christ's words to Nicodemus, emphasizing the undeservedness of grace. Drawing on Bresson's prisoner of war experience most directly, this film was based on the memoirs of POW André Devigny. Unlike the heroes of many other escape films, this prisoner is a rather ordinary man who escapes through basic persistence and a little grace.

Also based on a real man's memoirs, Pickpocket focuses on a petty criminal, and illustrates Bresson's thesis: "Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen." Not only does Bresson show more hands than faces in this film, he shows how those hands lift wallets from various pockets in minute detail.

With Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (1962), Bresson again chose a true story and, in fact, wrote his script directly from Joan of Arc's trial transcripts from the year 1431. Bresson also returns to explicitly religious territory, in part because he felt that Joan belonged to "the family of mystics. She had her feet on the ground, and spoke quite naturally about the things from above, her visions, as if they were the most ordinary things in the world."

Regarding Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Bresson liked the rhyme of the title and the word hasard, French for "chance." Balthazar, the central character, is a donkey, who survives through a tortured existence of various cruelties. All the evils of humanity are on display, with the biblical reference to the donkey adding spiritual depth to the film. But Balthazar dies in a moment of quiet grace at the end, surrounded in a field by a herd of sheep.

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Returning to Bernanos, Mouchette (1967) is a tale of a young girl's unfortunate life. Bresson said his heroine and her film "offer evidence of misery and cruelty. She is found everywhere: wars, concentration camps, tortures, assassinations."

Bresson would make five more films: Une femme douce (1969), Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (1971), Lancelot du Lac (1974), Le diable probablement (1977), and L'argent (1983), but his later films don't seem to hold up as well.

While Bresson always centered his films around youth confronting a world gone wrong, in his later films, this theme becomes prevalent, even to the exclusion of his focus on faith.

"I think in the whole world things are going very badly," he said in his later years. "People are becoming more materialist and cruel … Cruel by laziness, by indifference, egotism, because they only think about themselves and not at all about what is happening around them, so they let everything grow ugly and stupid. They are all interested in money only. Money is becoming their God. God doesn't exist for many."

Filmmakers of Faith

, an occasional feature at Christianity Today Movies, highlights directors who adhere to the Christian faith—sometimes strongly, sometimes loosely, and sometimes somewhere in between. This series will include everyone from biblically-minded evangelicals to directors who may only have a "church background" and perhaps a lapsed faith … but their films are clearly informed by their spiritual history.