The unnamed priest is wracked by self-doubt as well as a physical ailment that is eventually diagnosed as stomach cancer, and he dies after achieving an unexplained state of grace.
French actor Claude Laydu, who starred in the title role of Robert Bresson’s classic film “Diary of a Country Priest,” died on July 29 of a heart condition in Paris. He was 84.
Laydu made his screen debut in Bresson’s 1951 film, an adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ 1937 novel about a sickly but ascetic young cleric at his first parish in a small provincial town that proves hostile to his earnest morality.
Born in Brussels, Laydu was a young actor at Theatre Marigny in Paris (and a practicing Catholic) when Bresson chose him for the role, for which he lost weight to achieve the necessary gaunt appearance.
Laydu appeared in more than a dozen films during the 1950s. His second film was the 1951 light comedy “Le Voyage en Amerique,” starring Pierre Fresnais, but his role in “Diary of a Country Priest” influenced the tenor of his career. At least twice he appeared again as a priest, in Rafael Gil’s critically acclaimed 1953 film “I Was a Parish Priest,” in which Laydu starred, and 1954’s “Rasputin,” and he played Saint Etienne in the religious epic “The Road to Damascus”; portrayed the brother of a nun in “Les dialogues des Carmelites”; and wrestled with big moral questions in “Au coeur de la casbah” and “Nous sommes tous des assassins,” about the death penalty.
He played the composer Franz Schubert in 1956’s “Sinfonia d’amore” and appeared opposite his wife, Christine Balli, in “Italienisches capriccio” (1961).
Laydu and Balli produced the children’s puppet show “Bonne nuit les petits,” which ran on French TV for more than 10 years beginning in 1962 — the idea was to help get kids to sleep — and returned in the 1990s.
Laydu’s survivors include his wife, a son and a daughter.