Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Monsieur Vincent

(France, 1947)

The second Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film went to this little gem of a biopic. The Vincent in the title is Vincent De Paul, who became a saint in 1737, seventy-seven years after his death in 1660. I’m not much of a fan of the Catholic Church (please don’t accuse me of prejudice against Catholics; it’s the Church I don’t like, not the parishioners), but sometimes they hit the nail on the head when they canonize someone. This is a prime example. St. Vincent devoted his life to helping the poor.

It is actually an account of just his ministry, but if they had decided to tell the story of the early part of his life it could have been a swell action adventure story. He was captured by Barbary pirates, of all things, and was a slave for two years before escaping back to France! These are the “shores of Tripoli” that the US Marines still sing about today.

Stories of saints can get awfully sloppy and fawning, but this movie avoids that. It isn’t always easy to help the poor. For one thing, there are always too many of them for one man to help, or even one organization. Vincent often despairs that he can never do enough. My feeling is that we will never see the end of poverty. I wish it were otherwise, but that’s how I feel. And the destitute do not always behave in a grateful way. The movie shows that. People who have had to fight for a crust of bread all their lives seldom grow up to be saintly. They grab what they can, and if they think they can get more, they often demand it. I do not condemn them for this. I condemn the rich, the super-rich, and the dirty rotten filthy stinkin’ rich who could end poverty in a day if they distributed just a portion of their wealth.

And the gap between the aristocracy and the poor in the 17th century was staggering. The contrast between the upper class in their insane costumes and palaces and the world where bastard infants are routinely thrown into the river by their mothers is sickening. If those rich people were to suddenly find themselves thrown into the gutter where those below them live, they would soon learn to grab what they can. The writers, Jean Anouilh and Jean Bernard-Luc, and the director, Maurice Cloche, look the ugliness of poverty straight in the face.

This is a terrific film, graced with an incredible performance by Pierre Fresnay. If French films had been eligible for Best Actor consideration at the Oscars, he could well have bested all five of the nominees: John Garfield, Gregory Peck, William Powell, and Michael Redgrave. Ronald Colman won. I haven’t seen A Double Life, where he starred.

St. Vincent lives on today in the order of Vincentian priests and in the Daughters of Charity, 18,000 strong, still serving the poor. But he is in my life because of the thrift stores across the country. I’ve done a lot of shopping in them. I think he would be pleased to know about the St. Vinnie’s stores. And yes, a few years ago they actually started calling themselves that, realizing that that’s what everyone else called them!

I was a little curious as to what miracles are attributed to him. You can’t be sainted without performing at least one miracle. I found that he is said to have cured a nun of ulcers and made a paralyzed man walk again. Well heck. Sorry, Vinnie. Oral Roberts used to do that and a lot more, dozens of times every day.