The reputation of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville may rest on his laconic films noirs, but the heart of his oeuvre is his treatment of occupied France — in “The Silence of the Sea” (1949), “Army of Shadows” (1969) and, revived this week in a new digital restoration, “Léon Morin, Priest” (1961).
Cinephiles revered Melville, and Nouvelle Vague filmmakers saw him as a precursor, but he once told an interviewer that he was tired of being “known only to a handful of crazy film buffs.” “Léon Morin, Priest” was his corrective: Adapted from a prizewinning novel by Béatrix Beck and featuring a pair of hot young actors, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo, “Morin” was more commercially successful at the time than any of his previous movies.
Ms. Riva’s role, that of a young widow named Barny living in a German-occupied village in eastern France, recalls her character in Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959), a Frenchwoman haunted by a wartime love affair with a German soldier. Mr. Belmondo, made famous as an arrogant criminal in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (1960), was cast against type in the title role. Even after five decades, his entrance in priestly vestments remains startling.
Barny, the widow of a Communist Jew, is initially hostile to Father Morin. Going to confession as a joke, she baits him by comparing religion to opium. She is taken aback when Morin agrees and proposes to start a dialogue. She is further taken aback by his forthright demeanor, which she describes in voice-over as “the style and manner of a militant.” Their verbal sparring powers the movie. With its lengthy, erotically charged discussions (drawn largely verbatim from the novel), “Morin” is a theological action film that anticipates Eric Rohmer’s romantic talkathon, “My Night at Maude’s,” a philosophical debate between a chaste man and an attractive, experienced woman. The stakes, however, are much higher.