When Christians make movies about saints, they sometimes succeed as hagiography, always make their intended audiences feel good, and almost always fail as art. Christians often can’t resist the temptation to tell the story with a bullhorn and end up, too frequently, with movies that appeal primarily to the choir, the members of which are (understandably) hungry for fare that glorifies the Faith.
When agnostics and atheists make movies about saints or other heroes whose life choices were motivated by the claims of faith, however, things tend to turn out differently. If it’s true that saints irritate us into changing our ways, secular artists often build into their art their own anxious searching, their own “reaching out” to meet the irritating (read fascinating) protagonist, to understand him, and to unveil the mystery of what makes him tick. A few examples would include Therese (1986), the French film about St. Therese of Lisieux written and directed by Alain Cavalier; The Song of Bernadette (1943), written by Franz Werfel; Man For All Seasons (1966) and The Mission (1986), written by Robert Bolt; and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), written and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. I argue this would include Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel for Noah (2014).
In this tradition stands Monsieur Vincent (1946), the classic biopic of St. Vincent de Paul. It was directed by Maurice Cloche based on a script adapted by the great French playwright Jean Anouilh, who built a writing career exploring ideas that resonate more with Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre than with Frank Capra and Walt Disney. Interestingly, Anouilh had successfully tackled another saintly subject in his celebrated play Becket, the movie version of which starred Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.
In Monsieur Vincent, director Cloche and co-writer Anouilh omit the real life backstory of St. Vincent being sold as a slave, and begin the story with the priest’s arrival at the village of Châtillon-les-Dombes (more on this later). The conflict here is between the resolute will of the new priest and the dissolute will of the people formerly known as the parish. Sent to replace the previous (and corrupt) pastor, Father Vincent finds the church building itself in a shambles, not surprisingly, upon his arrival.
This set-up is not terribly original. But what distinguishes Monsieur Vincent from more saccharine cinematic treatments of priests “up against it” are the following three things: the elegant, compressed dialogue (think Hemingway writing in la lingua franca); the stark black and white photography by Claude Renoir (nephew of legendary director Jean Renoir); and the central performance by Pierre Fresnay.
Attempted by a lesser actor, the priestly protagonist could have easily come off as rude and pushy. But Fresnay brings a decidedly delicate, human sensibility to the man who was, after all, known widely as “the apostle of charity.” None other than Sir Alec Guinness noted in his autobiography, My Name Escapes Me, that Pierre Fresnay was his favorite actor.
That accolade makes perfect sense in light of Fresnay’s achievement in this understated film. His Vincent de Paul is unpredictable, by turns surly and soft, mild and mercurial—above all, single-mindedly interested in alleviating the trials of the sick and suffering. The context is the threat of the bubonic plague, dubbed “the Black Death” by Europeans at the time. The opening shot tracks Father Vincent (“Monsieur” being a 17th-century French address for a priest) striding purposefully toward his new assignment with all his worldly belongings in one sack.
Like a latter-day Saint Paul, Vincent soon finds himself ducking the stones lobbed at him from windows as he makes his way from house to house. The townspeople don’t want to die of the plague and they sure don’t want him contaminating them after he helps someone else, so they stone him from afar. Picture the threat of AIDS (real or imagined) without the scientific knowledge part.
Not only is this a clear metaphor for the fear of loving and of being loved, the rock-throwing is also a sign of how efforts at Christian charity were sometimes treated by those who had largely lost their faith. The story unfolds in the days before the rise of the welfare state, which, in several European countries since, has in some ways supplanted the Christian God.
If Monsieur Vincent reminds you of Diary of a Country Priest (1951)—another French movie about a rejected cleric laying down his life for an apathetic flock—it may be because the atmospheric musical scores for both movies were composed by Jean-Jacques Grünenwald. In the cinema, the visible is the body; the musical, the soul.
A black and white film presented in a detached, uneven mode of storytelling, Monsieur Vincent is also a movie of unexpected emotional moments. The first comes early on when Vincent stands a young girl in the town square. Her mother has died (and not from the plague, the priest angrily assures the onlookers). He flatly says he doesn’t want the girl to end up with a wealthy family, but rather, “with one that has too many kids already, one that struggles as it is.”
Amazingly, this counter-intuitive request works. The girl is taken in by a haggard mom and her large brood of weak but happy-looking children. The cleric’s message is that if it doesn’t hurt a bit, it ain’t love. Later, when appointed as chaplain of galley slaves, Vincent breaks code and trades places with a slave who is mistreated by a sadistic coxswain.
As he starts to gain supporters, Vincent gathers together a collection of society women to be generous in helping the poorest of the poor. But it soon becomes clear that elitist preoccupations and high society vanity have begun to spoil the ladies’ efforts and, to say the least, Vincent doesn’t take it well. The scene with The Ladies compresses so much meaningful conflict into a single exchange. The man’s ideal is too high, his call to renunciation too severe. The assembled group simply can’t match his depth of charity—despite their best efforts—and everyone knows it.
In time, with the help of a kindred spirit, a widow named Louise de Marillac, Vincent plants the seed that would blossom into the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians) and the Vincent de Paul Society, founded by Blessed Frederic Ozanam and now serving the poor in more than 130 countries. Madame de Marillac, inspired by the great man, went on to found the Daughters of Charity and was canonized in 1934 by Pope Pius XI.
The third act of the film shows an aging Vincent hobbled by the years but as intense as ever. He becomes an adviser to Anne d’Autriche, the Queen Consort of France and Navarre, who, in a lovely private conversation, calls him “the conscience of France.” Director Cloche lets us see the saint’s holiness not through homilies and good deeds, but through the faces of the other characters.
Monsieur Vincent won an honorary Academy Award for the best foreign language film in 1949 after it was released in the United States. The film was selected as one of the Vatican’s great films on its 1995 list. The heart of St. Vincent de Paul is incorrupt and can be viewed to this day in the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity om Paris.
A prequel to Monsieur Vincent would have great potential for commercial and artistic success; the true story of a hostile takeover at sea at the hands of Barbary pirates—an ordeal of slavery that lasted two years and ended in Istanbul only through the help of an ex-priest apostate—now there’s a movie. Maybe a good heathen will make it.