At last! Making its long-awaited DVD debut this week is Vatican list film Monsieur Vincent, Maurice Cloche’s beautifully crafted, award-winning biopic starring Pierre Fresnay as St. Vincent de Paul.
Long available only in out-of-print English-dubbed VHS, Monsieur Vincent has been one of the most neglected and hard-to-find of the 45 films honored on the 1995 Vatican film list. The bare-bones Lionsgate/StudioCanal DVD offers the original French soundtrack with English and Spanish subtitles. Though there are no extras or bonus features, the affordable price tag (under $13 at Amazon.com) puts this beautiful film within easy reach.
Luminously filmed in black and white by Cloche (The Small Miracle) and cinematographer Claude Renoir from a sensitive script by Jean Anouilh (Becket), Monsieur Vincent is as austere and compelling as its single-minded, iron-willed protagonist.
From the unnerving opening act, in which the saint wanders the deserted streets of his new village parish of Chatillon-les-Dombes while stones rain all around him, cast out of windows by villagers terrified of plague, the film draws a stark dramatic contrast between the appalling physical and moral poverty of Vincent’s times and the realism and moral authority with which Vincent confronts them.
Five centuries before St. Vincent, St. Francis of Assisi had sparked a spiritual revolution by teaching his followers to live as beggars. St. Vincent sparked another by teaching his followers to feed and shelter beggars, not just on an individual basis, but in an organized way, with ongoing institutions and orders devoted to caring for the poor and sick.
Monsieur Vincent celebrates the saint’s single-minded devotion to the poor without romanticizing the objects of his constant care. Though he urges his followers to regard the poor as their masters, Vincent admits frankly that they are “masters who are terribly insensitive and demanding … dirty and ugly … unjust and foul-mouthed.”
Yet he is adamant that, the harder they are to serve, “the more you will have to love them.”
Nor does Vincent (or Cloche) turn a blind eye to the failings and follies of the rich. At every turn Vincent’s efforts to channel the resources of the wealthy to help the poor are frustrated by apathy, frivolity, fastidiousness and pride. Monsieur Vincent spares no one; there is no class, no subset of society that is beyond criticism — or beyond hope and charity.
Some great film biopics, like A Man for All Seasons, are self-contained dramas. Monsieur Vincent seems torn from a larger fabric; episodic and impressionistic, it suggests more of the saint’s life than it can recount.
Yet no special background knowledge is necessary to perceive the spirit of the man’s life, and the spirit of the man himself. Monsieur Vincent is a beautiful, inspiring film, one that rewards repeated viewing. It deserves a place on the shelf beside the world’s greatest spiritual cinema.
Content advisory Brief scenes of violence, including a fleeting war montage with a glimpse of rape (nothing explicit). Highly recommended family viewing (for children old enough to keep up with the subtitles).