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
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 mercurialabove 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
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
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 flockit 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 charitydespite their best
effortsand 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
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 piratesan
ordeal of slavery that lasted two years and ended in Istanbul only through the
help of an ex-priest apostatenow there’s
a movie. Maybe a good heathen will make it.