In Georges Bernanos’ 1926 novel Under the Sun of Satan (Sous le soleil de Satan), Mr Malorthy is described as knowing “very little about that superior form of cheek which the clever call cynicism.” Today cynicism seems like just about the only stance left for anyone to take. There is very little room, it seems, for the sincere and the unironic.
1987, when Maurice Pialat made the film version of Bernanos’ novel, seems a very long time ago, at least in cultural terms. Bernanos’ book is an interesting choice for a director who had no religious faith. The 1987 Cannes film festival didn’t like it either, as they booed and whistled when Under the Sun of Satan won the Palme d’Or.
Robert Bresson, who made film adaptations of both Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest and Mouchette, claimed some kind of religious and spiritual sense behind what he was doing, saying in an interview, “Of course there is a conception of another life because I believe in it. At least one day I believe, the next day I don’t, but I believe anyway that there’s something more than just living on the earth. … I try to catch and to convey the idea that we have a soul and that the soul is in contact with God.”
But Pialat never addresses anything of the sort, that I could find. And yet Under the Sun of Satan is not a mockery of the priest’s faith, nor is it really an examination of doubt, which seems to be the common approach to faith in contemporary film. Gérard Depardieu’s Donissan is, instead, wrestling primarily with the certainty of his faith. (Depardieu himself, intriguingly, later returned to the faith of his youth via St. Augustine’s Confessions.) He confesses to his superior, Menou-Segrais (played by Pialat) that he is ill-fitted to the priesthood, and barely made it through the seminary, but he is willing to obey and submit. Menou-Segrais tells him that it’s not too late to change his mind and take up another kind of vocation.
But Donissan seems fated to finish what he’s started. It’s as he is finishing mass early in the film that Pialat shifts the ground under Donissan and under us. The way the film is cut makes it seem as if Donissan looks up to see the girl, Germaine/Mouchette (frequent Pialat contributor Sandrine Bonnaire), and that she is waiting for Donissan just inside the church doors, when in fact she’s meeting one of her lovers, the aristocrat Cadignan. It’s an abrupt jump, and it seems as if the story has turned toward a manipulative girl and her amorality, who is now going to tempt the priest to forsake his vows (that is no doubt how a filmmaker in 2020 would have constructed the narrative).
Credit, however, to Pialat for holding to Bernanos’ vision, which is something far more original. The “story of Mouchette” (Bernanos’ title for the beginning chapters of his book) is all part of the set-up for Donissan’s crisis, as he is sent to her village to assist the priest there. On the road, semi-lost, the story becomes something else altogether: an attack on Donissan by the devil, who makes Donissan question whether his unwavering faith might actually become his great temptation. (Incidentally, I would not be surprised to find out that Flannery O’Connor’s descriptions of Tarwater’s encounter with the devil in The Violent Bear it Away or the character of Mr. Paradise in The River were influenced by the encounter in Under the Sun of Satan.)
Here’s where our natural cynicism against anything that appears as sincere religious experience will fail us. Bernanos and Pialat expose a temptation far more frightening than the unoriginal temptations imagined by the cynical and ironic. The temptation of seduction (which Mouchette tries on Donissan and fails) is too easy. The cynics can only see priestly celibacy as a ridiculous and unworldly target, and so it is the simplest way to attack Christianity as a whole. In their eyes, only a “worldly” and rational religion makes any sense at all, which is why so many films involving religion make “forbidden” sexuality the central conflict (consider, e.g., the 1999 remake of The End of the Affair).
Bernanos and Pialat reject the easy path, and so the story, while more subtle, is actually more significant. Donissan’s temptation is to be impressed with his spirituality and be the “good priest” that, in the beginning, he doubts he can be. So when, near the end, he is called to visit a sick child (who has died in the meantime), he tells the resident priest not to “tempt him;” that is, he is tempted to do what he finally does, raise the child from the dead. What is too much for Donissan is not the burden of faith, but the burden of being faithful—which means being idolized and exalted (the parishioners even ask for his autograph on the way to visit the child).
Donissan’s internal ambiguity is expressed in the ambiguity of the film’s ending. He is attacked by the devil, and calls on God to deliver him. He prays, “Lord, if I’m still useful, don’t take me from this world.” He gets up, and we assume that his prayer has been answered, that he is still useful. And yet, in the end, after all the confessions are done being heard, Menou-Segrais finds him dead in the confessional. Is it that he is no longer useful, which is the obvious implication? Or is it to keep him from enduring the constant temptation to be the miracle worker that the people will now expect?
The answer is left for us to consider, but the temptation is one that is common, in smaller or larger ways, to anyone engaged with holy things. In the world of Under the Sun of Satan (because, as Donissan reminds Menou-Segrais, he is—at least apparently—still the lord of this world), we are confronted with the more dangerous temptation of spiritual pride; more dangerous because it is less obvious to both the unbelieving world and to Christians.