Amidst the Nazi occupation of France, beautiful widow Barny (Riva) lives in a sleepy hamlet nearly untouched by the war aside from the presence of German soldiers. Though she finds herself attracted to a female co-worker, Sabine (Mirel), she finds a more fulfilling, if also unrequited, relationship with the calm, thoughtful priest Leon Morin (Belmondo), after first challenging his faith in the confessional. Though her Marxist sympathies preclude the existence of God, Barny is impressed that the ruggedly handsome cleric uses her provocation to initiate what becomes an extended conversation about the character of God and the role of the Church. This ongoing dialogue, and the simmering sexual attraction it barely obscures, changes them both forever.
In a marked change of pace from his usual roles as rakish, cigarette-chomping thieves and lotharios, here Belmondo is a cerebral, unflappable paragon of faith, but no less magnetic. This heady drama tackles religious questions head-on, always with a pronounced undercurrent of erotic tension. Barny clearly wants to feel some passion amidst all the gray oppression around her, and Morin knows full well he could be the object of her desire. He plays with her a bit, but overall tries to channel her youthful energies to more spiritual questions. The result is a most unusual and fascinating dance, which director Melville brings off with considerable intelligence and restraint, aided by two charismatic performers who share a powerful on-screen chemistry.