Léon Morin, Priest (1961): Melville’s Sublime French Religious Drama, Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva on Top Form

Jean-Pierre Melville wrote and directed his sixth feaure, Léon Morin, Priest (French: Léon Morin, prêtre), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva.

Léon Morin, Priest

Film poster

Belmondo was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor.

It is based on the 1952 Prix Goncourt-winning novel “The Passionate Heart” (French: Léon Morin, prêtre) by Béatrix Beck.

Set in a town in the French Alps during the Occupation of France, the story’s heroine is Barny (Riva), a young, wayward, sexually frustrated widow, who’s raising her little girl.

A communist militant and the lapsed-Catholic widow of a Jewish husband, she one day enters a church and randomly chooses a priest (Belmondo) to confess.

While talking to him, after establishing immediate rapport, she attempts to provoke him by criticizing Catholicism.  However, instead of being affronted, offended, or upset, the priest becomes increasingly intrigue and engages her in an intellectual discussion about the nature of religion and its role in human life.

The priest, Leon Morin, is anything but a typical “movie” priest. He is young, handsome, smart and altruistic. He violets protocol and invites Barny to continue the conversation outside the confessional sessions.

She begins to regularly seeing him, impressed by his moral strength, while he makes it his mission to steer her onto the right path.

The tale is punctuated by subjective voice-over narration of Riva, reflecting on the conversations and their impact on her newly evolved identity and existence.

Jean-Paul Belmondo as Léon Morin
Emmanuelle Riva as Barny
Irène Tunc as Christine Sangredin
Patricia Gozzi as France
Nicole Mirel as Sabine Levy
Gisèle Grimm as Lucienne
Marco Behar as Edelman
Monique Bertho as Marion

The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in July 2011.


Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Produced by Georges de Beauregard and Carlo Ponti
Screenplay by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on Léon Morin, prêtre by Béatrix Beck
Music by Martial Solal
Cinematography Henri Decaë
Edited by Jacqueline Meppiel
Nadine Trintignant
Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte
Distributed by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France

Release date: September 22, 1961

Running time: 117 minutes
Box office 1,703,758 admissions (France)


TCM showed this movie on March 21, 2021.