The two-way street between convent and prison, the ideal place for Robert Bresson to found themes and images. The Dominican nunnery is devoted to the rehabilitation of women, inmates seek a new life among the sisters, "it’s a harsh legion." In comes the bourgeois, eager-beaver novice (Renée Faure), convinced of the sublimity of her mission and determined to save the soul of the new member (Jany Holt), a former convict who "stains anything white." The synergy between Faure (whose faith is inseparable from ego) and Holt (who sees "indifference" as the only cure for suffering) crystallizes the tensions simmering within placid arched chambers and long corridors, where people compete for attention and accuse each other, hunger for severity and forgiveness, quote Pascal and St. Francis back and forth. Outside, meanwhile, is the noir world of shadows and fog and prowling silhouettes, in other words the occupied France where the filmmaker spent a year imprisoned. Bresson’s control of cinematic space (deep-focus panning and tilting, languid dissolves as links into the ineffable) is already absolute, but for him that’s not enough: The pull toward the essential—the voice forever murmuring "less, less"—leads him to stage the purchase of a gun and the shooting of a lover as unbroken takes that pin Holt to blank walls and faceless men, quick brushes of almost ethereal terseness. And yet, is there a more tactile director? The hard checkerboard floor on which the women lay face down with outstretched arms, the loud clanking of the prison food cart pushed down a flight of stairs, above all the expelled Faure after "scraps of peace" in the convent's graveyard, alone with the elements, her upturned visage pelted by raindrops. An immense first feature, reflected laterally by the rest of Bresson’s work: The setting is further distilled in Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped, the closing image resurfaces as Pickpocket’s manacles, what are the nuns’ habits if not the medieval armor of Lancelot du Lac? With Sylvie, Mila Parély, Marie-Hélene Dasté, Yolande Laffon, Paula Dehelly, and Silvia Monfort. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce