Film Studies: He could hardly conceive of a face not beautiful

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There are horror stories these days about kids who regard Jaws and Star Wars as the first films ever made, so that everything else should follow in their image. So many new films reveal no motive except making money. And so it is with wonder and gratitude that I watch the rising reputation of Robert Bresson. After a very successful tour of the US, a Bresson retrospective played at the Edinburgh Film Festival and now comes to the National Film Theatre in London. Austerity has its day.

If you have never heard of Bresson, let me reassure you by saying he has done nothing to ingratiate himself. He is alive - nearly 92 - but not the man to do a crusty, anecdotal interview about what a big shot he once was. Bresson made 13 feature films between 1943 and 1983, and all of them together cost about the same as 20 minutes of The Phantom Menace.

Bresson scorns interviews and accepts God. He loathes stars and wants the actors to do no more than serve as presences. He cuts if they begin to act or interpret. He is concentrated, spiritual and unseductive. But he and Michelangelo Antonioni are the greatest film-makers still alive. Neither is intent on melodrama or sensationalism; yet both are masters at seeing how certain camera angles, the cuts from one shot to another, the harmonics of picture and sound, are windows into the soul.

The viewer needs to attend closely to the alien intensity of such work. You need to take sequences apart, measure them shot by shot. You must become less an escapist than someone seeking the inscape of a film. Then, all of a sudden, you find yourself carried off, by rapture or elevation. It is like feeling you have hardly seen a film before. But that is because you are used to being a spectator or a voyeur. Now you are in something like prayer, or meditative trance, with the screen.

It would be unfair to the films - and audiences - to say that Bresson is easy viewing. The BFI has chosen Mouchette (1967) as the picture to merit a wider release. So be it. Mouchette is a great film, but it describes a young country girl's advance on suicide. It comes from a Georges Bernanos novel, the author who provided Bresson with Diary of a Country Priest, and in some ways it resembles a Renoir country film in which vivacity has been replaced with resignation. There is even a clash between the severe authority of the film-making and the hapless state of the central character. All of which, I fear, makes Mouchette a tough point of entry for newcomers to Bresson.

If it had been up to me, I would have focused on the more positive energy of A Man Escaped, because it's the Bresson film in which I began to grasp how to watch him. The film was made in 1956; it is 102 minutes long, and in black-and-white. You may groan, but there is some relief. A Man Escaped has one of the more "exciting" situations in Bresson's work: a French resistance fighter, Fontane, has been captured in Lyons in 1943. He is imprisoned. He will escape.

Fontane is in nearly every shot, yet as was his practice, Bresson cast a non-professional, Francois Leterrier. He has a striking, pale, thin face - an eloquent face. But Bresson can hardly conceive of a face not beautiful, or untouched by grace. Actors are professionally beautiful; they have charm, they need to be liked and wanted. Ordinary people do not know their own faces in the same way, yet they cannot help but be expressed - or given away - by them. That face is no more or less than, say, our hands. They are necessary and helplessly revealing, a manifestation of spirit and purpose.

There are beatings and torture as well as Germans in A Man Escaped. But they are only implied. Fontane is in danger of his life - as we all are, all the time. But he is also alone in the grip of spiritual enquiry. Escape therefore becomes the same as a search for salvation, or coming to God. And so the film is the patient account of his hands spooning a way out of his cell, and of his face attending to offscreen sounds. Bresson used sound to establish the circumstantial reality that surrounded the taut, confined face. Fontane escapes at last and the Mozart C Minor Mass gives wing to his flight. It is a religious parable, if you like; so, is it a movie - or the enactment of a miracle?

That's where I'd begin. But you have to see all the films - Diary of a Country Priest, in which a humble priest meets death; Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, dialogue by Cocteau from a story by Diderot - made in 1945 and a startling harbinger of modernism; Pickpocket; Au Hasard, Balthasar, the tale of a girl and a donkey; L'Argent - his last film - a theorem on the infectious evil of money.

It's a body of work that could change your life if you go all the way. And it may carry you past movies. For while so many good films have no other purpose than to endorse the dark and fantasy, Bresson is interested in the progress of the soul. He will be there still, in 2099, even if film seems like parchment then.

The Bresson season opens with 'Les Anges du peche' on Wednesday, and will continue throughout September: NFT, SE1 (0171 928 3232). 'Mouchette' (uc) is re-released on 10 Sept