Harrowing Ideological Cinema Based on a Sermonic Tolstoy


Robert Bresson’s final film—made when he was 81—is a harrowing scour of ideological cinema, based on a sermonic Tolstoy story about greed but turned by Bresson into a pantomime stations of the cross, so completely focused on sensuous minutiae, moral interrogation, and the fastidious lasering away of movie bullshit (like acting and action) that it comes as close as any movie has to 15th-century Christian icons. Except the film’s not expressly Christian—Bresson is far less a spiritualist than a precision pragmatist—and it is totally modern. Bresson may stand as the most elusive master filmmaker; the large corpus of critical scholarship hasn’t fully sussed him out, or fully translated his intensely particular strategies into an unimpeachable aesthetic. (Of course, with his Manichaean declarations and acres of silence, Bresson himself was no help.) Every viewer has their own evaluative task ahead of them: Kent Jones’s audio commentary offers a rich and close reading of the film, but two 1983 French TV interviews with Bresson and a snippet of Marguerite Duras extolling his virtues only muddy the waters. And muddy they should well be.