Non-believers Make the Best Saint Movies: Monsieur Vincent | Patrick Coffin | CWR
“It is only because of your love that the poor will forgive you the bread that you give them.”
When Christians make movies about saints, they sometimes succeed as hagiography, always make their intended audiences feel good, and almost always fail as art. Christians often can’t resist the temptation to tell the story with a bullhorn and end up, too frequently, with movies that appeal primarily to the choir, the members of which are (understandably) hungry for fare that glorifies the Faith.
When agnostics and atheists make movies about saints or other heroes whose life choices were motivated by the claims of faith, however, things tend to turn out differently. If it’s true that saints irritate us into changing our ways, secular artists often build into their art their own anxious searching, their own “reaching out” to meet the irritating (read fascinating) protagonist, to understand him, and to unveil the mystery of what makes him tick. A few examples would include Therese (1986),the French film about St. Therese of Lisieux written and directed by Alain Cavalier; The Song of Bernadette (1943), written by Franz Werfel; Man For All Seasons (1966) and The Mission (1986), written by Robert Bolt; and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), written and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. I argue this would include Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel for Noah (2014).
In this tradition stands Monsieur Vincent (1946), the classic biopic of St. Vincent de Paul. It was directed by Maurice Cloche based on a script adapted by the great French playwright Jean Anouilh, who built a writing career exploring ideas that resonate more with Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre than with Frank Capra and Walt Disney. Interestingly, Anouilh had successfully tackled another saintly subject in his celebrated play Becket, the movie version of which starred Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.
In Monsieur Vincent, director Cloche and co-writer Anouilh omit the real life backstory of St. Vincent being sold as a slave, and begin the story with the priest’s arrival at the village of Châtillon-les-Dombes (more on this later).