Last Easter, I attended services at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. The bishop who delivered the sermon told of how Jesus was resurrected after dying on the cross, and how he appeared to Mary Magdalene. At first she didn’t recognize him, and mistook him for a common laborer. Clearly there was no unearthly glow around his body or blindingly bright halo encircling his head. “Hollywood would not approve,” the bishop said.
I thought about the bishop’s joke when I watched Maurice Cloche’s Monsieur Vincent, a biography of the seventeenth century curé Saint Vincent de Paul.
It’s a great film, and not just because of Pierre Fresnay’s brilliant, totally convincing performance as Vincent de Paul. It’s a great film because it doesn’t engage in the flashy hokum that so many films about religious figures do. There are no heavenly choirs, light streaming through stained glass, or mist-shrouded appearances of Jesus.
Despite the fact that Monsieur Vincent is about a deeply religious man, it depicts his life as one might have observed it at the time. His commitment to caring for the poor isn’t idealized — the people who receive his charity are often filthy, miserable, and ungrateful — but the film is all the more powerful for its realism.
Monsieur Vincent was released in France on November 5, 1947, and in the United States on December 20, 1948. It was awarded the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1949 at the 21st Academy Awards.