Maurice Cloche’s biopic on St. Vincent de Paul is a movie about justice and the love of mankind. I wish that all professing Christians in America, especially those who are committed more to a cultural, right-wing politicized version of Christianity than to the the Christ of the Bible, would watch it. This film depicts a life that vividly shows what it really means to be a Christian. Vincent is surrounded by members of the 17th century French aristocracy. Though they are churchgoers and want to have the favor of their priest, their actions show that they have no real concern for any person outside of themselves. Vincent’s original plan for the priesthood fell very much in line with this mindset, but as his life took terrible unexpected turns including being sold into slavery, his view of other people changed dramatically with it.
Vincent’s first action as a priest that we see in the film is bringing the daughter of a woman who has just died from the Black Death to aristocrats seeking help for her. Naturally, they are worried about the contagious nature of the disease, but Vincent has gone to every precaution possible to avoid that potential. He wants to help this little girl. We learn quickly that the people around him aren’t really so worried about catching the disease as they claim, they’re only using that as an excuse. Their real issue is that they don’t like what having a peasant girl around them would do to their social status.
Vincent relentlessly worked for the poor, but even more than that he fought the structure of his society to try to teach others to love, to embrace the poor, to accept and extend help to all people wherever it is in their power to do so. He was the very definition of a pastor or shepherd, trying to lead a community of people in the path of the Good Shepherd, the path of love.
Pierre Fresnay shines in his wonderful portrayal as St. Vincent, appearing to be as driven by the desire for justice as Vincent himself was. He took this role very seriously, very reverently, showing the world that this his character was a man who deserves to be remembered and honored, whose legacy must be carried on in the world of his own day and in our world today.
Being the day after Martin Luther King Jr. day, I tried to find a film that would honor King but there were none with really enough to say about (King: A Film Record…Memphis to Montgomery is an excellent documentary that shows the events as they happen but doesn’t allow for much reflection on a blog like this and Selma is an excellent recent movie, but I’ve only seen it once which was not enough for me to write an appropriate review for the occasion). But as I looked back further to a movie before King’s work that deals with a time period three centuries before King’s own, I found a way to honor King’s great work through the similar work of another man. Both St. Vincent and Martin Luther King Jr. are people who changed their cultures because of their faith in a God who loves justice, because of their unwillingness to sit and watch as a privileged people oppresses a culturally weaker group. Monsieur Vincent is a confrontational movie for Christians within any group of privilege, encouraging them to get out of the safe little existence they have created for themselves and to follow in the footsteps of their Savior by extending love and justice to all people. As St. Vincent and Martin Luther King Jr. are both great historical examples of this, the film makes it personal. Personal about the life of Vincent, of course, but also personal to every viewer, challenging them to ask themselves what they really believe about life, about God, about themselves and to evaluate whether or not those beliefs are expressed in their actions toward other people.