This is the first in a series of roundups of elusive, extraordinary, and rarely screened movies currently playing in New York City. This week: Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” playing at Film Forum through January 26.
The original title of Bresson’s “A Man Escaped” (1956), “Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut,” hints at the film’s religious undertones, with the subtitle taken from a biblical passage:
The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit — John 3:8
A deceptively simple story of a French resistance fighter attempting to escape from a Nazi prison, the film combines Bresson’s own experiences in a German POW camp with the memoirs of script consultant André Devigny to fashion a parable of resurrection through the passion of faith. As in many Bresson films, the plot is secondary (it’s all there in the title); transcendence lies in the process, the story told with such clarity, precision, and conviction that its hyper-realism lends it a spiritual dimension.
Bresson directs his amateur “actor-models” away from any melodramatic emoting, creating stoic perfomances that slowly reveal the majesty and psychological depths of the story via the shifting tensions between actions and objects. This unique blend of the mystical and the mundane lends Bresson’s film a sense of purity equaled by few other filmmakers. The spare dialogue is augmented by a complex sound design and judicious use of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor (which the composer wrote as a work of Thanksgiving for the recovery of his fiancee from a serious illness.)
More than any other POW film, with the possible exception of Jean Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion,” A Man Escaped examines the mechanics of escape to provide a deeper understanding of the essence of freedom and the means of attaining it.