An inexperienced, sickly priest shows up in the rural French community of Ambricourt, where he joins the community's clergy. But the locals don't take kindly to the priest, and his ascetic ways and unsociable demeanor make him an outcast. During Bible studies at the nearby girls school, he is continually mocked by his students. Then his attempt to intervene in a family feud backfires into a scandal. His failures, compounded with his declining health, begin to erode his faith.
At the beginning of the film, Bresson executes two dissolves—from a page covered with writing in the priest’s diary, to the name plaque at the center of the village, to the young priest mopping his face. The private diary and the sweaty face symbolize two expressions of the same individual anguish, while the plaque is the sedentary object that can neither be removed nor erased. It is the shackle of reality, a worldly obstacle to heavenly exaltation. In the following shot, positioned behind the gates of the manor, has the priest actually seen the adulterous couple kissing? The cutting suggests that he senses their presence only as they walk away behind him. But having himself been seen, he now becomes a dangerous intruder. Henceforth, they will not rest until he is beaten down, until he understands that he is an unwelcome stranger in their territory. In the game of society, the rules are unchanging.
— Frédéric Bonnaud (Criterion)