Transformer Man

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Annoyance, disgust, loss of irrecoverable time and IQ points--you can experience many things at the movies, in these days of the Farrelly brothers and Adam Sandler, but transcendence is rarely one of them.

To rise above the moronic morass, one must look further, for few filmmakers are more elusive than Robert Bresson, the French auteur whose beautiful, austere movies are revered--and sometimes feared--by cinephiles and directors. A retrospective of Bresson's films begins this week at the Cleveland Cinematheque.

"I think Bresson is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time," says Cleveland Cinematheque director John Ewing. "He's a pure artist, trying to convey inner lives onscreen."

Bresson, now 91 and living near Paris, is famous for his uncompromising methods and withering aphorisms ("There is nothing more stupid, more vulgar," he once said, "than working for an audience"). After his second film, he stopped using professional actors, declaring, "Acting is for the theater, which is a bastard art."

Bresson's films are subdued, hypnotic meditations on moral struggle and divine grace. Though born a Catholic, Bresson called himself a "Christian atheist," and espoused the tenets of Jansenism, a glum sect that denies the existence of free will. "He's kind of a mystic," Ewing says. "His characters are put upon, too good for this world."

Although Bresson directed his last film, L'Argent (Money), in 1983, his finest films were made in the '50s. In the haunting Diary of a Country Priest (1950), a lonely cleric, whose faith is misunderstood by his parishioners, achieves sanctity while suffering the agonies of stomach cancer. The protagonist in Pickpocket (1959), a Dostoyevskian crime tale, is compelled to get caught before he can accept a woman's love.

Though critics have described Bresson's films as daunting, viewers may be surprised by how compelling they are. "They demand patience and attention," Ewing acknowledges. "Bresson is a pure filmmaker who understands and appreciates the medium."

--Pamela Zoslov

Grace Notes: The Films of Robert Bresson runs through February 28 at the Cleveland Cinematheque, 11141 East Blvd. This week's schedule: Les Anges du Peche, Thursday at 7 p.m. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Friday at 7:30 p.m. The Way to Bresson, a documentary on the filmmaker, Friday at 9:15 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Diary of a Country Priest, Sunday at 2:45 and 7 p.m. Admission is $6; call 216-421-7450.

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