Archive of films Léon Morin, Priest / Léon Morin, prêtre

France / Italy
1961, 114 min

Section: Tribute to Jean-Pierre Melville
Year: 2012

Set during the French occupation, this untraditional story offers a study in faith, political beliefs, and physical attraction. Priest Léon Morin leads a long, spiritual disputation with the widow of a Jewish communist. Although she tries unsuccessfully to seduce her girlfriend, in the end she falls for Morin’s personal charms. The role of the ladies’-man-in-a-cassock was taken by Jean-Paul Belmondo.


Melville bought the rights to an American detective novel but couldn’t find the financial backing to film it. Prominent producers Carlo Ponti and Georges de Beauregard asked him to direct another film instead. Thus he came to the novel The Passionate Heart (1952) by Belgian writer Béatrix Beck, who had won the Prix Goncourt for her efforts. The movie version is entitled Léon Morin, Priest (based on the original French title of the book), and the director cast Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead, the beginning of their long cooperation; for the female lead of Barny (the author’s alter ego) he signed Emmanuelle Riva. The figure of the priest is portrayed as a Don Juan, an inveterate flirt who is conscious of his physical and spiritual appeal to women. But he never allows any physical contact, leaving them hot and bothered to suffer the torments of unrequited love. While the director claims not to have been interested in the spiritual aspects of the autobiographical literary work, its main theme is religious conversion. Protagonist Barny is an atheist and the widow of a Jewish communist. When she meets priest Léon Morin they open an intellectual discussion on the topic of faith in God. It all takes place during the occupation in a part of France controlled by Fascist Italy; Morin is a member of the resistance. Barny soon realizes that she’s fallen in love with the priest but she continues with their spiritual talks – a substitute for her unfulfilled love for her colleague, Sabine. The actors’ outstanding performances, the director’s distance from the topic, and a seemingly de-dramatized plot make this picture one of the heights of Melville’s work.


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About the film

Black & white, 35 mm

Section: Tribute to Jean-Pierre Melville
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville podle románu / based on the novel by Béatrix Beck
Dir. of Photography: Henri Decaë
Music: Martial Solal, Albert Raisner
Editor: Jacqueline Meppiel, Nadine Trintignant, Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte
Producer: Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti
Production: Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, Rome-Paris Films
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva, Irène Tunc, Nicole Mirel
Contact: Tamasa Distribution, BFI


Vic Pratt

Film Institution Rep.


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