At the Brattle
Few religious films ever give their saints and martyrs more than a light brush-off in technicolor and extravagance. Monsieur Vincent, a French film produced in 1948, is a notable exception. With the subtle acting of Pierre Fresnay and the excellent photography of Claude Renoir, the film pictures the life of Saint Vincent de Paul simply and movingly.
If performance were the sole standard, Monsieur Vincent might be comparable to Martin Luther. But the life of de Paul, at least as the film presents it, lacks the dramatic struggles and soul-searchings which Luther experienced. The good Saint begins as a priest called to help the poor, and ends with the same firm dedication. The events of his life, significant because they deepen his insight into the grislier side of poverty, seem obscurely connected. For a biographical film, this is probably the more realistic approach, since few men lead lives which come to a climax in the third act and close with a suitable denouement. But because of this treatment, Monsieur Vincent builds up dramatic episodes which seem to lead nowhere.
The acting of Pierre Fresnay does much to hold the film together. The task of portraying a saint without priggishness is not easy, especially since de Paul rarely strayed from the realm of good intentions. With flashes of humility and determination, Fresnay creates an idealist who shrewdly understands the poor.
When Fresnay, the script, and the photography are at their best, some splendid scenes result. A galley episode, in which the priest rushes down to relieve a fainting oarsman, provides the film's most exciting moment. The photography by Renoir, done almost over-zealously in the French style of realism, finds most of the 17th century poor either consumptive or deformed. This grimness underscores the need for a saint, but an occasional glimpse of healthier and happier peasants might have brightened the realism of a vividly performed script.