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Saturday, June 29, 2024

Probably the best Movie Ever Made about a Saint: Monsieur Vincent (1947)

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Probably the best Movie Ever Made about a Saint: Monsieur Vincent (1947)

Although playing the role of a saint is the most difficult challenge an actor can face, in the film Monsieur Vincent (1947), Pierre Fresnay achieved the impossible: creating a character that brought to life the famous French saint, Vincent de Paul. Without a doubt, we are dealing with a cinematic masterpiece that shines amidst the countless failures of directors and actors who have attempted similar projects.

Mission: Impossible - Interpreting the life of a saint

For creators of literary, poetic, or dramatic works, representing saints is the most difficult challenge imaginable. Anyone can understand why. Even if one does not write novels, compose poetry, or perform in plays or films, one can realize how hard it is to imagine how a saint thinks, acts, and feels. They are the “extraterrestrials” of the Church. Their ability to live the beatitudes presented by Jesus Christ, our Lord, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7), is beyond ordinary human capabilities. Enduring poverty is one thing, but rejoicing in it and being, as stated in the novena of Saint Joseph, a “lover of poverty,” is something else entirely. Enduring persecution might be possible, but rejoicing in the midst of it – like the apostles after they were scourged (Acts 5:41) – is something else altogether. Being slapped and not retaliating may sometimes seem possible, but turning the other cheek is nearly inconceivable. Not, however, for saints. That is why we are amazed whenever we read their lives. Yet, at the same time, we recognize the truth in what Saint Francis de Sales, a realistic pastor, said: for most Christians, saints are people to admire but difficult to imitate.

Great writers have also been aware of the extreme difficulty of literary representation of Christian heroes. The greatest poet of European culture, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), needed all his genius to depict sanctity in the form of the angelic Beatrice, his guide through Paradise. William Shakespeare never wrote an entire play about a saint, though he left us the luminous figure of the Anglo-Saxon Saint King Edward the Confessor (1003–1066), who starkly contrasts with Macbeth. The only one who, I believe, achieved much more was the third immortal in the pantheon of universal literature: Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616). In his novel Don Quixote (1605; 1615), he managed to encode all the traits of a perfect Christian knight. If we follow the interpretation of the other giant of Spanish literature, Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), Cervantes might have succeeded in creating a true “Spanish Christ” (“el Cristo español”). No matter how much we extend the list of literary saintly characters, we will find, again and again, the difficulty and rarity of such creations.

Without any hesitation, I can say that this French cinematic creation is, both from the perspective of the art of moving images and in the way it portrayed the sanctity of its protagonist, one of the best films ever made.

A jewel among actors:  Pierre Fresnay

But if for a Catholic writer or poet representing the lives of saints is so difficult, how could it be any different for an actor or actress? Portraying the role of Saint Paul, Saint Rita, or Saint Joan of Arc without ever being able to internalize their values and ways of seeing and acting seems like pure utopia. How could a worldly woman like Ingrid Bergman, who was also a Lutheran, ever imagine the inner life of a saint like Joan of Arc (Joan of Arc, 1948)? Or how could a diva like Jennifer Jones –who played in The Song of Bernadette (1943) – truly understand the measure of sanctity and humility of Saint Bernadette Soubirous? Clearly, we cannot expect such a thing. Therefore, their performances, though interesting and enjoyable, do not withstand serious reflection. Their usual mannerisms, with bright eyes and candid looks, typical of films from the interwar period, can do no more than they are: clumsy attempts to render practically inimitable personalities. However, the scarcity of successful films about saints should not discourage us. Among the vast amount of coal, diamonds are extremely rare. Yet people have never ceased to search for them, rejoicing fully in their discovery.

Such a diamond is one of those very rare films that has managed to bring before the amazed eyes of the audience the image of an extraordinary saint: Vincent de Paul (1581–1660). The miracle happened on November 5, 1947, when, for the first time, the film Monsieur Vincent was presented to the world. Without any hesitation, I can say that this French cinematic creation is, both from the perspective of the art of moving images and in the way it portrayed the sanctity of its protagonist, one of the best films ever made. The awards it received speak for themselves: Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival (1947), Grand Prix of French Cinema (1947), Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (1948), Best Film awarded by the Belgian film press (1949). Everything – from the historical context, sets, costumes, music, atmosphere to the masterful performance of Pierre Fresnay (1897-1975) – is almost perfect. But what has continued to fascinate me over the years is the incredible resemblance of this actor to Saint Vincent, as we can see in the images that have been preserved.

There are a few actors whom I have always believed to have received a special gift to interpret an epochal role: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine (Casablanca, 1942), Paul Scofield as Saint Thomas More (A Man for All Seasons, 1966), Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy as Stalker (Stalker, 1979), Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice, 1995), Michael Gambon as Squire Hamley (Wives and Daughters, 1999). All of them had other remarkable achievements, but none can compare to what they left us in the mentioned films. Similarly, Pierre Fresnay offered us the most credible Saint Vincent one can imagine. With complete naturalness, he managed to bring to life a character for whom Christian charity, especially towards the poor and abandoned, was the sole rule of life.

We are in the midst of a pandemic neurosis. The fear of the plague, which claimed countless victims in Europe at that time, led to acts of extreme cruelty. Suspecting a poor mother of being contaminated with the deadly virus, the inhabitants of a small town, Châtillon-les-Dombes in Bresse, lock her in her house. The woman dies of starvation, but her daughter is saved by the new parish priest. It is he, Saint Vincent.

Wanderers through pandemic times

From the first seconds of the film, the atmosphere of 17th century France absorbs you. We are in the midst of a pandemic neurosis. The fear of the plague, which claimed countless victims in Europe at that time, led to acts of extreme cruelty. Suspecting a poor mother of being contaminated with the deadly virus, the inhabitants of a small town, Châtillon-les-Dombes in Bresse, lock her in her house. The woman dies of starvation, but her daughter is saved by the new parish priest. It is he, Saint Vincent. Without any fear of the plague, he confronts the anxiety of the inhabitants, showing them the attitude a true Christian should have in the face of death. Impressed by his holy simplicity and his profound devotion to the abandoned and the poor, members of aristocratic houses begin to open their treasuries. Supported even by the famous Gondi family, who did business with the most illustrious Italian house, the Medici, he becomes the coordinator of an incredible charity project that alleviated the suffering of hundreds of thousands of poor people. Together with his devoted spiritual daughter, Saint Louise de Marillac (1591–1660), he founded The Company of the Daughters of Charity. The image of ladies from the French aristocracy distributing food to the poor is unforgettable.

The queen, the saint, and God’s wisdom

With a persuasive power that only sanctity can give, the notoriety of the saint exceeded all imagination. Thus, towards the end of the film, we find him in the guest room of Queen Anne of Austria (1601–1666), the wife of King Louis XIII (1601–1643) of France. Majestic and melancholic, filled with concern for Monsieur Vincent, whose venerable age indicated the approach of death, Her Majesty tells the saint that he works too much. Despite being full of reverence, the great apostle’s reply is implacable:

“I have done so little.”

His humility leaves you speechless. He, who trained generations of holy priests, created religious orders and priestly fraternities, built monumental institutions to aid the poor, and managed to involve numerous duchesses and countesses in such charitable works – he, Monsieur Vincent, had done too little.

More good than we did yesterday. And tomorrow, more good than we do today. For, adds Saint Vincent, “we are terribly negligent.” We so often fail to do the good we could do right now, to be loving, or – at least – be kind to those around us.

The Queen persists: she responds by pointing out that few Christians in all of history will be able to present themselves at the Final Judgment with so many good works. But what can you do with a saint who is convinced that the simple fact of having slept five hours a night instead of four is an unpardonable act, almost an unforgivable sin? Aware of the greatness of her interlocutor, the Queen confides in him. In simple words, she admits the sins of her youth: desires for glory, pleasures, and fleeting beauties – like the diamonds adorning her clothes. The climax is reached when Her Majesty, reflecting the wisdom of the sapiential books of the Holy Scriptures, acknowledges that between the times of youth and the old age she comforts with the presence of a saint like Vincent de Paul, “there has only been some long, empty dream.” Then follows the crucial question. Not just any question, but THE question:

“What is one supposed to do in life, then, to accomplish something?”

In other words, what can someone – young, at the beginning of life, or facing death – do to prepare for the great transition? The saint’s answer contains a single word:

“More.”

More good than we did yesterday. And tomorrow, more good than we do today. For, adds Saint Vincent, “we are terribly negligent.” We so often fail to do the good we could do right now, to be loving, or if we have not yet reached the measure of the blessed from the Sermon on the Mount, to – at least – be kind to those around us. To convey to them a little warmth from our hearts, our faith, our hope. To show them that we care about their sufferings. About their poverty. Especially the poverty “in spirit” – the ignorance of faith, virtues, and sanctity. For, apart from our good deeds, everything – even the grand castles of the Kings and Queens of France – are nothing but fleeting things.

Her Majesty’s conversation with her own confessor seems directly inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes, in which God left us, through the wise Solomon, a clear message about the “values” of this world:

“I saw in all things vanity, and vexation of mind, and that nothing was lasting under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

In the midst of the storm unleashed by the crisis of all the fundamental institutions of our world, it is worth resting sometimes to remember the fundamental truths. Those that can only be understood in the presence of a saint like Vincent de Paul. A saint whom, behold, a providential film and a wonderful performance have brought close to us.

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Last modified on Saturday, June 29, 2024
Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

A Catholic father of seven and a grandfather of two, Robert Lazu Kmita is a writer with a PhD in Philosophy. His first novel, The Island without Seasons, was published by Os Justi Press in 2023.