Under the Sun of Satan opens to an inherently solemn ritual as a senior priest, Canon Menou-Segrais (Mauric Pialat) shaves a spot on the top of the head of a pensive young priest named Father Donissan (Gérard Depardieu) who, in turn, uses the occasion to express his feelings of profound estrangement and inutility from the practical concerns of their congregation. Acknowledging both his mediocre scholastic aptitude at the seminary that nearly prevented him from becoming ordained, and his indebtedness to Menou-Segrais for his admission into the parish ministry (despite the young priest’s perceivable disapproval of his superior’s spiritual resignation and complacency), Donissan nevertheless declares his intention to request the archbishop for a re-assignment, preferably to a Trappist monastery where he believes that his temperament and secular detachment would be more conducive to their contemplative, monastic life of humble (and seemingly unobtrusive) service.The film then contrasts Donissan’s acts of asceticism and mortification against the actions of a promiscuous and amoral teenager named Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) who leaves home and unexpectedly appears at the chateau of her older, financially insolvent aristocratic lover, Marquis de Cadignan (Alain Artur) after an altercation with her parents over news of her pregnancy. Unwilling to entertain Mouchette’s capricious idea of running away to Paris, but unable to send the inconvenient young woman away despite her provocative admission of having another lover – a married deputy minister named Dr. Gallet (Yann Dedet) – Cadignan allows her to stay at his home and, during the course of their brief cohabitation, is fatally shot. Meanwhile, Menou-Segrais dispatches Donissan to the neighboring town of Etaples in order to assist a retiring priest during confession. Preferring to travel on foot, Donissan traverses the disorienting rural landscape throughout the day only to realize as darkness falls that he is hopelessly lost. In his exhaustion and delirium, he becomes aware of the presence of Satan alongside him who appears in the guise of a traveling horse dealer (Jean-Christophe Bouvet) and tests his faith by endowing him with the ability to see unobstructedly into the human soul. Now possessing the grace and burden of spiritual insight, the tormented Donissan journeys home and fatedly encounters an instrument of mutual salvation in the wanton and aimless Mouchette.
Adapted from Georges Bernanos’ first novel, Under Satan’s Sun (who modeled the protagonist after St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, the Curé d’Ars), Under the Sun of Satan is a stark, challenging, and uncompromising exploration of faith, spiritual service, despair, and redemption. Maurice Pialat visually juxtaposes the dark, austere, and somber hues of Donissan’s ecclesiastic environment with the warm, naturalistic hues of village life to create a visual metaphor for the dour young priest’s self-imposed alienated existence: the chromatic shift as Donissan begins his journey to Etaples and encounters a group of children playing in the street; the textural earth tones of the rolling rural landscape that contrasts against the imperceptible, claustrophobic darkness of his fevered encounter with the enigmatic horse dealer; the intimate, compositional framing of Mouchette in soft and innately sensual amber hues as she visits Cadignan and Gallet that becomes harsh, ashen, and pallid as Donnisan forcefully engages her in a soul-baring self-evaluation of her troubled existence. However, in contrast to the deeply religious Bernanos’ predominant exploration of the spiritual themes of God’s silence, the sin of complacency, and the immediacy of evil, Pialat focuses on the physical and tangible manifestations of temptation, suffering, and despair on the individual psyche. By capturing Donnisan and Mouchette’s personal journeys toward a reconciled awareness of their moral and spiritual imperfections, Under the Sun of Satan emerges, not as a portrait of transcendence, but as a tactile and provocative illustration of the real, yet indefinable essence of the human soul.
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