At first glance, the story of a 17th century priest who spent the last 43 years of his life working tirelessly for the poor, the sick, and the aged would seem to be unattractive raw material for a motion picture. "Monsieur Vincent" does fail to escape the difficulties imposed upon it by the story--it has few dramatic moments and no plot; it "preaches," to a degree. But the total effect of this picture is one of strength and simplicity and unquenchable sincerity. Somehow--the reasons cannot be ticked off "one, two, three"--Viscount de la Grandiere, the producer, and Maurice Cloche, the director, have managed to overcome the threats of didacticism and dullness, and have made a film of power and grandeur.
Much of this is the work of Pierre Fresnay, who plays the title role with blazing honesty and humility. The part of a saint is patently not an easy one; in the hands of a lesser actor, "Monsieur Vincent" would have been hopelessly marred. The entire weight of the film rests on the central character, and Fresnay carries it with ease.
Vincent de Paul goes to the village of Chatillonles-Dombes, which has been without a priest for ten years. His success there (he organizes a mission to care for the poor) draws the attention of Richelieu, who makes him Chaplain of the Royal Galleys. As a Court official, however, the priest feels out of touch with the unfortunates he wants so passionately to serve. He gives up all of his possessions, and later, convinced that the "miserables" need food more than religious instruction, founds the famous St. Lazare mission in Paris.
There are terrifying scenes of human suffering in "Monsieur Vincent. Hundreds of pitiful creatures press hopefully into the St. Lazare hospital; the priest cannot bear to turn them away, even though the mission is overcrowded and the charity workers are overburdened. Saint Vincent finds reason for bitterness elsewhere as well: the society ladies from whom he gets financial support are frivolous and patronizing; his own loyal co-workers at St. Lazare shrink from providing aid for a child "conceived in sin."
But Saint Vincent does not become bitter. He can only think of the immense job he has to do. Even at the end of his life, he complains of his weakness and inadequacy, and his final words to a novice are: love the poor with a love strong enough to make them forget the shame of accepting charity.
There is nothing subtle in "Monsieur Vincent." Saints, one may assume, are not subtle people, and the producers fortunately did not succumb to a temptation to modernize or sophisticate this story of the good man in a sorrowful world. They filmed the saint's life straight-forwardly, and that, together with the abilities of Pierre Fresnay, makes "Monsieur Vincent" worthy of all the awards it has already received in Europe.