Director: Maurice Cloche
Distributed by: Lopert Pictures
Released: December 1948 (in U.S.)
We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of Providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ. –St. Vincent DePaul, 1648
St. Vincent DePaul is the Catholic patron saint of charitable institutions, and if you want to know why that is, this is the movie for you. Monsieur Vincent is a straight-forward biopic, with none of the gloss or glamour that Hollywood gives to anything of a religious nature. Vincent was a French-born, highly-educated man who had a calling greater than even the priesthood, though he didn’t know it at first. Five years after his ordination in 1600, he was abducted by Barbary pirates and was sold into slavery, sold again twice, and remained a slave until he was given his freedom seven years later. He then studied in Rome and after his return to Paris, was assigned to be the spiritual advisor of a wealthy family in nearby Clichy.
|Pierre Fresnay as Vincent DePaul|
This is the point Monsieur Vincent starts its story. Vincent arrives in the town looking for where he needs to be, but everyone appears to be hiding out in their homes. A few take shots at him from their windows with rocks. The village seems to have been plagued with a later edition of the Black Death, and Vincent to them appears to be someone who will do no good but to spread the disease around. He finds a little girl living with her dying mother, whom no one is willing to risk helping. But St. Vincent is. He tends to the woman, allowing her to die with dignity, and eventually takes on the responsibility of the little girl.
When Vincent finds the mansion of the family to whom he is assigned to minister, they want him to stay with them and not venture out into what would be his probable death. Vincent realizes this is not what God called him to do. When things simmer down a bit and the folks come out to see who this crazy priest is, he challenges a crowd that has gathered. He asks which family is at their limit, which family cannot possibly take on another mouth to feed—that is who he wants the little girl to go with. A woman with a gaggle of kids around her steps forward—what’s one more? Vincent is showing what charity is—not only for someone to being willing to give, but for someone else to ask the impossible of them. This is the core of whom St. Vincent DePaul is.
|"I'll be happy to give a few francs, as long as it's tax deductible."|
The film continues on with Vincent’s life, with a stint aboard a ship powered by convicts, where he volunteers to roll up his sleeves and grab an oar. Vincent rubs elbows with the rich and poor alike, asking more than all would like to give. He tolerates the rich who give what they do to feel better about themselves, and challenges a rich woman, Louise de Marillac, to give more than what makes her feel comfortable. Like the poor woman who took on the orphan girl, Louise rises to the occasion, co-founding the Daughters of Charity with Vincent, and eventually being canonized as a saint herself in 1934.
Monsieur Vincent is an inspirational movie about an inspirational character. In watching the performance by Pierre Fresnay, I was reminded by Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Oskar Schindler in 1993’s Schindler’s List, when at the end he laments that, as much as he did, he could have done more, could have sold a car or a pin to save just a few more lives, but didn’t. Vincent displays what charity is—giving and giving, but always being able to do more. Like Schindler, who says, “I didn’t do enough,” Vincent always thinks he could have done more.
|"This pin--two people."|
The Title: I’m not sure why he is Mister Vincent, and not Father DePaul. I come from a time when you called priests by their last name, and no one referred to Father Bill or Father Jason or whatever.
The culture: Back in the Kingdom of France, in the early days of the Bourbons, you had the haves and the have-nots. Vincent decided to provide for the latter by asking and asking of the former.
|Brendan Gleeson as Fr. James, Calvary|
Agenda danger: It is always a pleasant surprise to see Catholic clergy in film treated with respect and reverence. Vincent had his flaws, but like Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1938) or Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), he is portrayed as a regular guy who remembers what the calling of the priesthood is. Though such portrayals may be rare these days, the few that exist are notable. 1972’s The Exorcist focuses on two priests, played by Jason Miller and frequent Best Foreign Film actor Max von Sydow, who make great sacrifice in defeating the Devil. More recently, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James in 2014’s Calvary is the embodiment of sacrifice and forgiveness. It’s no wonder the Vatican included Monsieur Vincent on its 1995 list of 45 great films, right up there with Schindler’s List and Best Foreign Films The Bicycle Thief (1949), La Strada (1954), 8½ (1963), Dersu Uzala (1975), and Babette’s Feast (1987).
Best Picture that year: Hamlet.
Rating: A inspiring film about a man who gives to God by helping the poor. They don’t make films like this anymore.