The life of Ignatius of Loyola has provided the inspiration for compelling narratives in film and literature: his adventurous journey, full of defeats and victories, fortuitous encounters, bitter clashes, dreams and frustrations, has all the ingredients for a bestseller or a blockbuster, but also for a true work of literary or cinematic art. Moreover, his honest and tireless search for truth in his own life is a universal quest we can all relate to, regardless of religion or culture.
Given such narrative possibilities, we can indulge ourselves in hypothesizing which aspects of his life might be taken into consideration by one director rather than another, or what style might be more effective in communicating a certain characteristic of the Basque saint. For example, what would a film on Saint Ignatius be like if it had been made by Robert Bresson, a director whose style, described as “transcendental” by Paul Schrader, “seeks to push the mystery of life to its extreme consequences”? This question is prompted by the analysis of an unfinished project that aimed to make a film on the life of Ignatius and involved the French director.
The complex vicissitudes of the phases of production and scripting of the film are described in a meticulously researched article by Maria Carla Cassarini, which appeared in the periodical Ciemme. It analyzes the context and circumstances that form the basis of the project, and the role of all who were involved in various ways in the conception and development of the work.
The production company Film Universalia was behind the initiative, a company which specialized in the creation of documentaries and art films with international collaborations. The producer Salvo d’Angelo and his collaborators – among whom were the screenwriters Diego Fabbri, Cesare Zavattini and Andrea Lazzarini – had ambitious goals: far-sighted, aware of the communicative power of the cinematographic medium, they aimed at the “spiritual renewal of the world.” The horizon of the production company is universal, “Catholic,” in the proper sense of the term. It is the search for a Christian humanism, and not strictly confessional. A project for a film dedicated to the founder of the Jesuit Order found its place in this context. D’Angelo, oriented toward the idea of an international production, after arriving in Paris, contacted the French director Robert Bresson, inviting him to take up the direction.
The first reference text was El gentilhombre, Iñigo López de Loyola, a biography of the saint written by the Basque Jesuit Father, Pedro de Leturia. It was mentioned in September 1946 in an issue of the film company’s magazine Il Corriere di Universalia. Ignatius, according to de Leturia, was “a man transformed by the grace of God and by the intimate and mystical relationship with the Virgin Mary against a historical background of great tensions, harsh and threatening like the granite monoliths that loom in all their grandeur over the monastery and sanctuary of Santa Maria de Montserrat.”
After some productive vicissitudes, a definitive subject was reached. According to the Italian writer Diego Fabbri, the French director Bresson, the French-American writer Julien Green and Fabbri himself collaborated on its realization (even though Mylène, Bresson’s wife, always insisted on the absolute autonomy of the director in the scripting of the subjects of his films).
At the time, the French director was the author of two films that, although still far from what would become his characteristic style, had already aroused the interest of critics and audiences: Angels of Sin (Les Anges du péché, 1943) and Perfidia (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, 1945).
In 1947 Bresson spent a period in Rome, perhaps to gain first-hand experience of the setting of the film while starting to draft the screenplay. It was a period of which he has a pleasant memory: “A producer had asked me to write a screenplay on Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The project didn’t come to fruition, but I have good memories of that period: I had a chauffeur; I spent my time walking, visiting museums.”
The project, thanks to the involvement of Bresson, promised to be interesting. Animated by a spirit of truth, the French director proceeded to study the life of the saint, practicing some “healthy iconoclasm,” removing the more stereotyped dimensions of the personality of Ignatius present in the common imagination and given weight to little known yet central aspects of his life. Universalia, in July 1947, presented the first phases of the collaboration between Green and Bresson in these words: “They declared themselves in agreement on not wanting to reduce the film to a pure and simple biography. In fact, it will not be the chronological narration of the life of the warrior saint, but the interpretation of him, of his fundamental motives. By examining and lovingly studying the documents, they have discovered that, alongside the traditional figure of a severe, inflexible and reasoning Ignatius, there was another character, the true but almost unknown one, all humanity and generosity, overflowing with strength and feeling; a complex and compelling figure, a figure of pure audacity, who did not see evil only in the enemies of the Church, but also lurking in the folds of the Church herself.”
As a result of this research work, Bresson came to have a distinctive image of the Basque saint, the fruit of reading and in-depth reflections. He stated so himself in 1960, in an interview conducted by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Jean-Luc Godard: “Saint Ignatius was an extraordinary man; his life was a surprising combination of chance and predestination.”
In another interview, one is struck by the contrasting juxtaposition of Ignatius with Saint Joan of Arc, about whom the French director was to make a magnificent film.  “What Saint Ignatius demanded a century later, that familiarity with a palpable supernatural, the genius of Joan obtained without any difficulty. Saint Ignatius did not know he was a saint; he died without knowing it.”
With his desire to construct a work “imprinting a single style,” Bresson played an important role in the decision to abandon the initial idea of “constructing a ‘mosaic narrative,’ in which ‘modern’ elements (referring to the contemporary situation of the Jesuits) intersect with historical elements (constituted by episodes taken from the life of Ignatius).”
Ignatius and the themes of Bresson’s cinema
Unfortunately, the film would never see the light of day. Due to the financial failures of some brave and unpopular productions like La terra trema (1948) by Visconti and Germany, Year Zero (1948) by Rossellini, Universalia began closing down. However, from the never-born film were to blossom the sprouts of a new cinematographic language, the unmistakable touch of Bresson.
According to the director’s widow, the preparatory work on the Ignatius film is at the basis of his following film, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1951), based on the novel by Bernanos with the same title. The preparatory study and the reflections on the character of Ignatius converge in the conception of Bresson’s masterpiece, considered the first film in which his characteristic style takes shape, an inescapable reference point in the history of cinema.
In 1951, in an interview with the magazine Opera – quoted in a recent article by Antonio Farisi – Bresson “compared the work for Ignazio to that of Diary of a Country Priest: ‘They are two commissions. If I accepted them, it’s because they were both on the same wavelength as me. I approached Ignatius in his interiority. As far as possible I kept only the spiritual part of him.’ What would have been the film on Ignatius could then be glimpsed against the light in the images and sounds (including the narrator’s voice) of Diary of a Country Priest, which reveal how a work of art can document an interior search for truth, without the slightest concession to effect.”
The originality of the director’s style, which would assert itself with vigor in subsequent films, emerges already from some of Fabbri’s notes – a synthesis of what had been agreed upon with Bresson and Green – about the film Ignazio di Loyola: “The characters will speak in their own language – in the language of their own country – and since the film takes place in Spain, in France and in Italy, we will have some words spoken in Spanish, others in French and others in Italian. Connecting, and almost illustrating, the various moments of the film, a ‘commentary voice’ will intervene from time to time to explain the drama and words of the story. Naturally, this narration will be dubbed into various languages.” The decision to have everyone speak in their own language with a narrator off-screen, to be dubbed, was a revolutionary choice for the time.
‘Ignazio’ between ‘Angels of Sin’ and ‘Diary of a Country Priest’
If Bresson’s characteristic cinematographic style was born with Diary of a Country Priest, for which his work on Ignazio played a preparatory role, it is nevertheless possible to identify a thematic thread in his production, starting from the preceding films, which emerges in the project dedicated to the Basque saint.
In Bresson’s first full-length film, Angels of Sin, we have the striking story of novice Anne-Marie, a lively and stubborn girl, a lover of life and the world, who wants to enter the novitiate of a convent of Dominican nuns. She does not want to run away; she is driven by a strong desire to serve the Lord in the cloistered convent, where the sisters carry out the delicate mission of accompanying former inmates on the path to redemption. With blind determination, Anne-Marie lives the first months of her mission intensely; clashes and difficulties are not lacking. The implicit affinities with the beginnings of Ignatius’ conversion journey must not have escaped the director. In both cases, we see a person in a continuous and exhausting search for God’s will, struggling with his or her own character, personal frailties and weaknesses. Both of them struggle, stumble and get back up on the long journey to discern God’s will for their lives, as opposed to personal expectations. Both of them, at the beginning of their journey, run the risk of Manzoni’s Donna Prassede, whose zeal to follow the will of heaven was hindered by the mistake of “confusing her brain with heav’n.” Emblematic is the maxim assigned to Anne-Marie on her arrival in the novitiate as the guiding principle of her actions: “If you have heard the word of the Lord who shows you a way, listen to no other words, they are but distorted echoes of His word.”
Like Ignatius – whose clumsy attempts to understand the Lord’s will for his own life involve the literal imitation of the gestures of saints of the past, first and foremost Saint Francis – Anne-Marie will have to overcome the contrasts and misunderstandings necessary for following a genuine path to perfection. As she tells Therese – the ex-convict taken possessively under her protection – “to have a sister to teach bliss in God” becomes the goal on which all the zealous novice’s efforts converge, with the immediate result of exasperating the newcomer. In Anne-Marie’s frustrated and futile efforts resound the unforgettable words with which Ignatius, speaking of himself in the third person, described his arduous human and spiritual journey: “During this time God behaved with him as a schoolmaster does with a child; he taught him. This could depend either on his rough and uncultivated wits, or on the fact that he had no one else to instruct him, or on the fact that he had received from God a firm will to serve him.”
Let us return to the cinema of the French director, or rather, to the “cinematography,” as he liked to specify it. In this first film there are two major themes of Bresson’s poetics, expression of a peculiar vision of life: the case and the prison. The case – or the unexpected event – upsets the lives of the protagonists. Their journeys take unforeseen directions with respect to an orientation established by an iron will. An unexpected turn of events seems to guide, to teach – like God with Ignatius – his characters. Anne-Marie proves to be firm as a rock in her mission. However, the clarity of a purpose does not always coincide with the evidence of the means used to achieve it. The novice will have to be expelled from the convent and then return humbly and vulnerably to see the fulfillment of the original mission, the free and conscious conversion of the former prisoner, Therese. In the end, when the novice is ill and on the verge of death, it turns out that the center of the film “is not so much Anne-Marie’s mission to herself as the profound communication with Therese, the exchange between the two souls.”
Ignatius’ life follows a parallel path. Having embarked on a military career, he saw his plans turned upside down by an injury to his leg during the siege of Pamplona. It was a physical and human defeat, apparently without hope, the starting point for a personal conversion. Then, convinced that he was called to serve the Lord in Palestine, after some adverse events he reluctantly recognizes that “his stay in Jerusalem is not God’s will.” Similarly, the possibility of founding a religious order in Rome had not been considered at all before.
Ignatius’ life followed unforeseen paths. In time he learned to abandon himself to Providence so as to allow himself to be led along roads not trodden, toward plans much more challenging than his initial projects. Bresson himself clearly understood this dimension of the Basque saint’s life. In a discussion-interview with Godard on the film Au hasard Balthazar (1966) – which appeared in the Cahiers du cinéma – the director referred to a term in the title, hasard, convinced that the lives of all are composed in the same way, that is “composed of predestination and chance.” He added: “When you study the lives of people, of great men for example, there’s one thing you see very well. I’m thinking of the life of Saint Ignatius, on which at a certain moment I thought of making a film (that I didn’t make). Well, studying the curious life of this man, who founded the largest religious Order (in any case the most numerous, which has spread throughout the world), studying his life, one feels that he was made for this existence, but everything, in his journey toward the founding of this Order, is made of chance, of encounters through which one feels that he arrives, little by little, at what he had to do.”
The troubled itinerary of the young curate of Ambricourt, from the pen of Bernanos, also involves a tortuous path: his spiritual maturation owes much to the complexity of the relationships in which he finds himself involved as parish priest. In the background it is grace – always present, often elusive to human reasoning – that gives meaning to the encounters, situations and incomprehensible suffering. The well-known words of Thérèse of Lisieux “All is grace,” pronounced at the point of death, fill with light and meaning the young curate’s suffering life.
In Pickpocket (1959), Michel – the young thief – will have to travel unforeseen paths, leading to prison, before he can accept and return Jeanne’s saving love. His words at the end of the film are full of meaning: “O Jeanne, to get to you, what a strange road I had to take!”
The theological motif of the contrast between prison and freedom is another ever-present theme in Bresson’s cinema, literally or metaphorically. In Angels of Sin – a film that predates the “encounter” between Ignatius and Bresson – the theme of prison has various literal and metaphorical aspects. The novice Anne-Marie experiences the seclusion of her convent as a place of freedom, which gives free space to her personal relationship with God and to the service of her neighbor. It is a freedom conquered by the decision to enter the novitiate at the beginning of the film, lost through expulsion from the convent, and finally regained by the profession of vows on the point of death, once she is readmitted to the convent. Parallel – though apparently opposite – is the journey of Therese, a former prisoner, welcomed into the convent on the day of her release. As a prisoner she lives a fictitious freedom, taking refuge in the convent after having killed the man who betrayed her. Suffering in the convent, locked in her past and in lies, she will only find true freedom when – after taking vows in place of the dying Anne-Marie – she decides to give herself up to the police. In contrast to the freedom of her soul, which she gained through her free decision, for Therese the bars are now an apparent prison. She began her journey toward that interior freedom, a necessary condition, according to Saint Ignatius, for “seeking and finding God’s will in organizing one’s life,” as opposed to the slavery of one’s “disordered affections.” Similar is the path of Michel, the young thief of Pickpocket, for whom jail constitutes the “place of liberation.”
More metaphorical, and just as effective, is the freedom/prison theme in the film Diary of a Country Priest, a consequence of Bresson’s encounter with Ignatius. Here the director insists with his shots on suggesting the hopeless suffering of the young protagonist. The repeated shots of the gratings of his rectory and of the castle of the count – one of his parishioners – evoke the loneliness and the malaise of the young priest, “prisoner of the Holy Agony,” as he himself will say.
The anguish and oppression of which he is a victim with no possibility of escape are also suggested by the numerous fades to black. Repeatedly the shots close in on him, dissolving his face, his figure in a blackness without light, without hope. It is his Calvary, in which the apparent absence of God still allows him to find redemption in the words: “What does it matter? Everything is grace,” pronounced at the point of death.
Ignatius and the ‘Bresson style’
The Diary of a Country Priest is considered the first film of Bresson’s distinctive cinematographic style. If the never-made film Ignazio is preparatory to the film based on Bernanos’ masterpiece, we might observe – or rather, imagine – a possible meeting point between the style of the director’s later films and Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, which are the center of Jesuit spirituality.
The “Bresson style” is par excellence “anti-spectacle” In opposition to the tendency to create refined images, capable of communicating complex meanings and emotions in a few moments – as if it were possible, with an image, to possess, “to take” the interior world of a person or the complexity of a situation – Bresson’s cinema proceeds by subtraction. The images are limited yet essential, not without meaning. Meaning is evoked subtly, never shouted, through the relationships of the images, above all in the filming of details and inanimate objects. It is an approach that “privileges the meaning that the thing comes to assume in a determined context with respect to the thing taken in itself.” The cinematography of the French director is not the static representation of a reality, but is a co-creation, in which the spectator has an active role. According to the words of Bresson himself in his Notes on Cinematography, “the public is accustomed to guessing the whole of which only a part is given.” The fragment is therefore assigned the function of synecdoche. It is in this perspective that we can understand Bresson’s almost obsessive attention to the hands, a characteristic element of his films. From the gesture, from the touch of a hand it is possible to intuit the sense of a communication, the quality of a relationship or the way of orienting oneself in a situation. It is a suggestion that enriches, an illustration that opens interpretative horizons, without locking the viewer into a single possibility: in Bresson’s cinema what is not seen can be more important than what is seen.
The fundamental traits of this essential feature of the director’s style emerge from the already cited Fabbri’s notes on the film Ignazio di Loyola: “The director, in fact, does not intend to focus – if not for reasons of contrast – on the pompous and baroque element of the environment, but on the tragic nature of the intimate contrasts that are best expressed by relying on a bare and naked setting in which the human faces and certain real elements become the only truly living interpreters of the story. This fundamental bareness of environment will be matched, at times, […] by the touch, the detail, decoratively rich and sumptuous and even pompous, to give the necessary historical and environmental indication and location.”
We can therefore go so far as to imagine a possible figurative choice typical of Bresson: the possibility of showing, for example, an empty wall with a baroque candelabrum. The contrast acquires symbolic value for an era: not the complete scenographic reconstruction of the environments, but only one element to evoke a possible atmosphere.
Another of the main devices used by the French director, the ellipse, proceeds in the same direction. The spectator is sent from the visible to the invisible: several essential moments of the plot take place off-screen. With the choice of not showing some episodes, the communicative possibilities are widened. The opening sequence of A Man Escaped (1956) is memorable. The film narrates the successful escape from prison of a young Frenchman during the Second World War. His determination to escape – which he demonstrates throughout the course of the film – is suggested by the shot of his hand cautiously checking whether he can turn the handle to the door of the car in which he is being driven to the prison. Once the handle has been turned, the escape attempt is all off-screen, the camera remains stationary on the spot left vacant by him . The empty space – in which it is easy to foresee the return of the fugitive – and the impassive gaze of the prisoner next to him on his way to prison strongly suggest the inanity of his first escape attempt.
Some aspects of this elliptical and synecdotal style of Bresson’s cinematography can already be seen in the subject of Ignazio that Fabbri summarized for Universalia: “The various sequences of the dramatic story, all hinged on human, political and religious contrasts, will be interrupted and at the same time linked by evocative landscape panels, not shot according to the easy and oleographic taste of the picturesque, but with the taste of someone who wants to catch the particular aspect of an atmosphere and landscape, that unmistakable sign of a temperament, of a soul, of a race, of a people and therefore of a ‘drama.’ Naturally these ‘landscape panels’ will be shot in authentic places and will serve better than any other element to create and complete the moods of the characters.” The use of landscape panels, therefore, far from the intention of creating a picturesque atmosphere, is oriented to favor an evocative possibility wider than the potentialities of a single image.
Finally, another fundamental aspect of Bresson’s cinema is the limited interest in psychological characterization. The acting does not seek a performing expressiveness: it is not by chance that Bresson calls his actors “models.” We approach Bresson’s characters through their gestures, looks, behaviors. His models cannot be fully understood or defined by their actions and motivations; we can only guess their complexity and ambiguity. The mystery of the human person is presented to us in its sacred elusiveness.
The essential traits of the “Bresson style,” briefly mentioned – the poverty of the image and the focus on the details, the ellipse, and the lack of a deep psychological examination of his characters – all concur to delineate the active role of the spectator, called to re-create, on the basis of his or her own imagination, people, situations and possibilities. The role of the spectators is remarkable: If they let themselves be touched, led and questioned by the characters and their situations – as they are offered – they can enter into their own mystery and walk toward unexplored possibilities. Bresson’s cinema can be considered a spiritual exercise. The spectator is not called upon to passively receive pre-packaged stimuli, ordered to arouse predetermined emotions, but rather to make a journey, to integrate the stories on the screen with his or her own memory, intellect and will. By intuiting something about the characters’ lives – which the director’s restraint does not want to make explicit – the viewers can discover something about themselves and the context in which they are inserted.
In this sense, Bresson’s directing style is not far from the role – as Ignatius thought of it – of one who guides the exercitant to meditation and contemplation. Just as the director who does not unveil the whole, does not impose his own truth but guides the viewer to intuit the invisible behind the visible, so the one who guides the meditation and contemplation is invited to only “touch on the various points with a brief and simple explanation. In this way the one who contemplates grasps immediately the true foundation of the story; then, reflecting and reasoning for himself, he discovers some aspect that makes him understand or feel it a little better, either by his own reasoning or by divine illumination. In this way he gets more spiritual taste and fruit than he would have if the person who proposes the exercises had explained and developed the meaning of the story at length. For it is not knowing much that satiates and satisfies the soul, but feeling and tasting things internally.”
* * *
We conclude this incomplete journey on the possibilities of an encounter between two giants who lived in different times and contexts with the extraordinary final shot of Diary of a Country Priest. The evocative power of the black cross on a luminous background, in its radical poverty and immediacy, enriches with meaning the entire film and the young curate’s journey through suffering. No explanation sought in terms of words, images or editing could have been more evocative than that black cross – an expression of the darkest anguish experienced by the young curate – immersed in a light evocative of the indefinable power of grace.
We are faced with a beauty that does not reside in the aesthetics of the image itself, but in the glimpses of truth suggested. Bresson with his cinema, like Ignatius with his Spiritual Exercises, on different levels and with different implications, steered toward the opening of the human heart, with all its humanity and spirituality, to the mystery of an elusive Otherness.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.10 art. 10, 1022: 10.32009/22072446.1022.10
. P. Schrader, “Lo stile trascendentale”, in G. Spagnoletti – S. Toffetti, Il caso e la necessità. Il Cinema di Robert Bresson, Turin, Lindau, 1998, 63.
. Cf. M. C. Cassarini, “Ignazio di Loyola di Robert Bresson: cronaca di un film mai nato”, in Ciemme, No. 152-153, August 2006. This study in the following notes will be cited with the abbreviation C and the page number.
. Now called Cabiria. Studi di cinema, this is a four-monthly periodical of cinema studies published by Cinit (Cineforum Italiano) and directed by Marco Vanelli, to whom special thanks are due for some of the clarifications and suggestions in this article.
. “French writers and artists like to work in agreement with us for a common spiritual future”, in Il Corriere di Universalia, No. 5, April 1947 (cf. C 42).
. C 52.
. A. Tassone, “Robert Bresson, un Leone dimenticato”, interview with Bresson published in the Catalog of the Festival France Cinéma, Florence 1989 (cf. C 53).
. D. Fabbri, “Ignazio segreto”, typescript, kept at the Centro Diego Fabbri (see C 61).
 . “Iñigo di Loyola e il suo drammatico segreto”, in Il Corriere di Universalia, No. 7, July 1947 (cf. C 56).
 . J. Doniol-Valcroze – J.-L. Godard, “Entretien avec Robert Bresson”, in Cahiers du Cinéma 18 (1960) 9 (cf. C 58).
. The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, 1962).
. “Entretien avec Robert Bresson et Jean Guitton”, in Études Cinématographiques, Nos. 18-19, October-December 1962 (cf. C 58).
. D. Fabbri, “Ignatius of Loyola”, op. cit., (cf. C 59).
. C 59.
. Cf. A. Farisi, “La voce di Ignazio di Loyola”, in Oss. Rom., August 2, 2021, 1-3.
. D. Fabbri, “Interpretazione artistica d’un folle di Dio”, in C 124.
. A. Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2003.
. Ignatius of Loyola, A Pilgrim’s Tale, No. 27.
. J. Sémolué, “Strade senza ritorno, personaggi e costruzioni nei film di Robert Bresson”, in G. Spagnoletti – S. Toffetti, Il caso e la necessità… , op. cit., 63.
. Ignatius of Loyola, A Pilgrim’s Tale, No. 50.
. A. Farisi, “La voce di Ignazio di Loyola”, op. cit. Perhaps the term “chance” would be preferable to “hazard.”
. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 1.
. V. Fantuzzi, “Un regista, il diavolo e il Buon Dio – nuove osservazioni sul cinema di Robert Bresson”, in Civ. Catt. 1998 IV 610f.
. R. Bresson, Note sul cinematografo, Venice, Marsilio, 1986, 98.
. Cf. L. De Giusti, “Per un ecologia dell’immagine”, in Il caso e la necessità. Il cinema di Robert Bresson, op. cit.
. D. Fabbri, “Interpretazione artistica d’un folle di Dio”, in C 123f.
. Ibid., C 124.
. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 2.