Monsieur Vincent, Maurice Cloche’s beautifully crafted, award-winning biopic starring Pierre Fresnay as St. Vincent de Paul, is as austere and compelling as its single-minded, iron-willed protagonist. Luminously filmed in black and white by Cloche (The Small Miracle) and cinematographer Claude Renoir (Grand Illusion) from a sensitive script by Jean Anouilh (Becket), Monsieur Vincent is a towering achievement among the world’s great spiritual cinema.
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 St. Vincent’s times and the realism and moral authority with which Vincent confronts them.
Vincent de Paul led a remarkable life. Born into poverty, sold into slavery in Africa after being kidnapped at sea by Turkish pirates, he eventually rose to become a trusted advisor to queens, princes, and nobility.
Even more remarkable was the way this unassuming priest used his influence and abilities to bring about major change in social consciousness throughout France, change that made its effects felt all over Europe and eventually the whole world. Five centuries earlier St. Francis of Assisi, born to wealthy parents, had sparked a spiritual revolution by gathering together men and women and teaching them to live as beggars. Vincent sparked another revolution by gathering together men and women and teaching them to feed and shelter beggars.
Of course charity for the neediest had always been practiced in Christian society on an individual basis (Francis himself taught his followers to reduce themselves to poverty by means of giving their possessions to the poor). Vincent’s innovation was to organize charity, to found ongoing institutions and orders devoted to caring for the poor and sick. The work he started is continued today by not only by the orders he founded, such as the Sisters of Charity, but also in a way by every soup kitchen and homeless shelter.
Monsieur Vincent celebrates the saint’s single-minded devotion to the poor without romanticizing the objects of his devotion and recipients of his charity. Vincent himself, though he urges his followers to regard the poor as their masters, 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.”
Vincent loves and serves the poor, but he doesn’t make excuses for them. “I know [Providence] looks after the birds of the field, but at least they do something!” he chides one shiftless young man in line for bread; adding, with a shake of the fellow’s arm, “That’s strong enough to wield a spade!” The next suppliant is a young mother of four who entreats, “They’re hungry… I don’t expect anything for myself…” Vincent gives her permission to bring her children every day — but the next shot reveals the woman at the table snatching and scarfing a hunk of bread, with no sign of concern for her children.
Nor does Vincent (or Cloche) turn a blind eye to the failings and follies of the rich. At every turn Vincent’s relentless efforts to channel the resources of the wealthy to help the poor are frustrated by apathy, frivolity, fastidiousness, and pride. Through the good graces of one sympathetic woman of means, he forms the “Ladies of Charity,” a Paris-based group dedicated to helping the poor. But the ladies turn out to be more taken with the exclusive nature of their own society than with any possible good they might do; and, in the end, most of them end up sending their maids and servants to do the work. Vincent responds by constituting the “Daughters of Charity” from these working-class women; yet there are some outcasts whom even these plain honest women are loath to touch. 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; it suggests more of the saint’s life than it can actually recount. An incident aboard a ship after Vincent has been named chaplain of the galleys suggests his concern for the galley slaves who row the ships, but we never see Vincent visiting these slaves (who are actually convicts sentenced to galley service) in prison, or establishing the hospital he built to care for them after their grueling labor left them shattered. A wrenching debate about the fate of abandoned foundlings left in church doorways leaves us unclear about the outcome; we are assured that Vincent accomplished all he set out to do, but he did so much Cloche can’t possibly show it all.
Not being an expert on the life of Vincent de Paul, I find myself, watching the film, wishing at times I knew more about the specific events glimpsed in the film (the Catholic Encyclopedia entry helped, as have a few other sources). 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.
At last! Long available only in out-of-print English-dubbed VHS, Monsieur Vincent is finally available on DVD, in a bare-bones edition from Lionsgate/StudioCanal with 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, one of the most neglected and hard-to-find of the 45 films honored on the 1995 Vatican film list, within easy reach.
Picking the top 10 movie dads was both easier and harder than picking the top 10 movie moms. Easier, because there were more candidates to choose from — and harder for the same reason!
Finding Nemo in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
(New review for 3-D rerelease) Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo is the best father-son story in all of Hollywood animation, and maybe animation generally. It’s also a stunningly gorgeous film that exploits the potential of computer animation like no film before it and few films after it.
Chronologically, The Lion King stands between the striking triumphs of the early Disney renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) and the bumpy deterioration of the latter 1990s (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, etc.). One way or another, it’s at the turning point between Disney’s creative renewal and its eventual decline. Fans might locate it near the pinnacle, along with Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t feel the love.
How can I describe the inexplicable power of My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki’s timeless, ageless family film? It is like how childhood memories feel, if you had a happy childhood — wide-eyed and blissful, matter-of-factly magical and entrancingly prosaic, a world with discovery lurking around every corner and an inexhaustible universe in one’s backyard.
The Incredibles is exhilarating entertainment with unexpected depths. It’s a bold, bright, funny and furious superhero cartoon that dares to take sly jabs at the culture of entitlement, from the shallow doctrine of self-esteem that affirms everybody, encouraging mediocrity and penalizing excellence, to the litigation culture that demands recompense for everyone if anything ever happens, to the detriment of the genuinely needy.
Here Crowe overturns another Hollywood convention in an equally strong performance as a boxer who isn’t a morally checkered, socially alienated single man with a history of extracurricular violence and troubling relationship issues (cf. Rocky, Raging Bull, The Boxer), but a wholly decent, self-controlled, devoted family man. He’s not only Cinderella, he’s Prince Charming too.
A tightly wound, middle-aged carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) works with young boys at some sort of center. His inner life, his motives and emotions, aren’t revealed to us, and he doesn’t seem preoccupied with them himself. He wears a leather back brace, and has perhaps been injured at some point; and his work itself may be a similar sort of prop against some injury of his past.
L’Chaim! Life itself, joyous and tragic, is the subject of the boisterous, comic, heartbreaking vision of Fiddler on the Roof.
The screenplay, well adapted by Robert Bolt from his own stage play, is fiercely intelligent, deeply affecting, resonant with verbal beauty and grace. Scofield, who for years starred in the stage play before making the film, gives an effortlessly rich and layered performance as Sir Thomas More, saint and martyr, the man whose determined silence spoke more forcefully than words, and who then spoke even more forcefully by breaking it.
The Emperor’s New Groove is really about another new groove — Disney animation’s. By 2000, the old Disney-as-usual wasn’t selling any more, and Disney was ready to begin trying new things.
Contriving to hide the boy from camp officials (who soon put the other children to death), Guido tells Giosue that the concentration camp is actually an elaborate role-playing game in which the "players" are competing for points in the hopes of winning a real battle tank. From then on, Guido will take any risk, court any danger, to maintain his son’s illusion that none of it is real.
This is a film about the legacy of fatherhood and the inheritance of sonship, about the unbreakable connection and the unbridgeable gap between one generation and the next. It is a celebration of masculinity, but it contemplates how men relate to women as an index of their manhood.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.