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Film Club January 2017 : Monsieur Vincent

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I'm excited we can appreciate this film together at the start of the New Year.

Top film on the Arts and Faith top 25 films on mercy.  But the lack of  a group discussion on Monsieur Vincent prompted me to post the following a few months back.  I think this is a good place to start this discussion :

"I agree it's worthy of being right there with the top mercy films.  But there is little discussion around here as to why.

Please share!

I would love to see a "group appreciation" sort of discussion here....why did we as a group think so highly of this?

For starters : Similar to what SDG outlines in the [mercy top 25] blurb, this film is a tremendous map of the challenges and weight of mercy.  Monsieur Vincent himself was surely a great man, and the film paints him as such.  Yet we are allowed to feel the weight of the mercy he extends.  This mercy is a hard road, and it is not for the faint of heart and mind.  We are left to reflect on the necessity of God's hand of strength and sustenance lifting the human hand of the mercy-giver.

Deep waters for a film, indeed.  Yet some of the film’s glory is that it is also a sweeping entertainment, complete with generous humor and vast scopes of time and adventure.

Glad to be here in 2016, reflecting on this film from the year my mother was born."

Other questions :

-How does this film do with its portrayal of this man?  Is he lionized here?  Is he allowed to be human?  Does this film avoid the common biopic tendency to paint a revered figure as superhuman?  How does this affect the quality of the film?

-How do you feel about this falling at #1 on the mercy list?  Daring question perhaps, as we must respect the list and the voting that went into it.  (I love the top 25 on mercy list, BTW.)  But I'm curious what each of us feels makes a film worthy of the top slot in that list.  Would you rather have seen a film of a different vein occupy that top slot?  Should the greatest mercy films be ones that inspire one to mercy...ones that portray it most clearly onscreen...ones that are about mercy but happen to be great in other ways?  Would you place this highly on a top 100 list? Intrigued to grapple with this film and its place on the list. 

-How does this fit in with or compare with typical biographical films that we see in our era?  How is this one similar or different, and how is it better or worse for it?

I was surprised but thrilled to find that Pauline Kael admired this film.  This, from her 5001 Nights at the Movies : "Pierre Fresnay's performance as the desperately compassionate Vincent de Paul gives extraordinary feeling to Jean Anouilh's sensitive, lucid scenario. Though de Paul's very considerable intellectual gifts are minimized, this diminution is preferable to the usual solution of having an actor mutter platitudes while the other actors gasp, How brilliant! The character is simplified, but the emotions--the revulsion and horror at poverty, misery, cruelty--come through without mawkishness."

Link to our thread on this film :

Link to the top 25 on mercy :



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  • 5 weeks later...
8 hours ago, Brian D said:

Shall we extend for a week or two after January so that there may be some more chance for participation?  I know folks want to join in, but likely haven't found the time yet.

Extension should be a good idea. To be honest, this month has been bad bad bad for me, and next month (for reasons relating to the dissertation) will be even worse. Which is why I only got to the movie tonight, on the final night of January. 

Preliminary responses:

1. This is such a 1948 movie. Actually, it reminds me in some ways of The Third Man. Though Monsieur Vincent is set during the period of the Black Death, there's a similar sense of a world-gone-wrong, one in which the wealthy manage to survive and even thrive while everyone else suffers. And that's directly related, I think, to the post-WWII moment. The physical devastation of the War and the existential devastation of the Bomb strike me as mirrored in the vision offered here of the plague.

2. Speaking of which, I'm curious about how this movie would look put in conversation with the Existentialist philosophers. It deals with a similar sense that the world has suddenly been revealed as essentially cruel, but the direction the protagonist goes is substantially different than those of the Existentialists. The questions about mercy might play in here.

3. There are several moments of breaking-or-nearly-breaking-the-fourth-wall, which might be worth exploring.

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Quick first thoughts: extraordinary framing, wow this movie is timely, and phenomenal portrayal of a cinematic saint.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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Finally watched this last night, and without overspiritualizing things, I think there's a reason I waited until this week to watch the film. With its emphasis on the care for the poor, refugees, children, the sick, and its emphasis on the praxis of love and compassion, it's a remarkably relevant film. It manages to reveal the dehumanization and humanization of both the rich and the poor, which is a remarkable feat in itself--neither the wealthy nor the impoverished are able to escape their own selfishness and depravity, but each also displays moments of mercy and grace. There are several of those fourth-wall breaks which are done with great subtlety, which made them all the more effective--Vincent is staring directly into the eyes of the rich as well as the audience, which is really effective in eliciting a response.

I did wonder whether the film was more mythology than biography, and whether it elevates St. Vincent to...well...sainthood, in that he's over and above everyone. His struggles often feel more external than internal, and while he does speak of his inability to actually accomplish anything, the film does seem to lionize him. I'm not aware enough of his actual biography to know which events or conversations were historical and which were created for the film, but the scene with the infant and the wealthy women around the table just wrecked me; it is the most single more powerful moment in the film for me.

This film is one more reason why we should rethink creating a Top 100 list. I'd advocate for its inclusion.

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Thanks, everyone. Long overdue for A&F to get a discussion/appreciation thread going on this.
Nathaniel, intriguing thoughts about existentialism. Can you flesh out the details of how this film perhaps departs from a traditional existentialist response to the brokenness of the world?
Joel and Evan, I agree that this is relevant beyond all expectations. Amazing. 
Similar to what I said before, I really like this film's ability to live both in the realms of "high-spiritual" cinema and "high-adventure" cinema in the sense of its epic scope. Rare combination in cinema, and one that is compelling because  a life of mercy, of faith lived out, is much more of an adventure than is usually acknowledged onscreen. Or in any corner of modern culture, for that matter.
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On 2/8/2017 at 5:34 AM, Brian D said:
Nathaniel, intriguing thoughts about existentialism. Can you flesh out the details of how this film perhaps departs from a traditional existentialist response to the brokenness of the world?

I'm going to have to give this some thought. My bullet-points are generally just the starts of ideas, never fully-developed in themselves. But both this movie and Existentialism are responses to WWII, so there's some potential there. I'll get back to this in the next week or so.

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  • 3 weeks later...
On 2/9/2017 at 6:57 PM, NBooth said:

I'm going to have to give this some thought. My bullet-points are generally just the starts of ideas, never fully-developed in themselves. But both this movie and Existentialism are responses to WWII, so there's some potential there. I'll get back to this in the next week or so.

Ok, getting this in under the wire, but--my primary thought process here is that Existentialism largely developed in the form it did as a response to the destruction in Europe (and the, um, existential threat of the Bomb). I might be mixing my Mailer in here a bit much, which is never wise, but the idea is that the post-War world made possible, made inevitable, a certain amount of despair regarding the possibility of human meaning (Faulkner: the only question with which authors now deal is 'when will I be blown up'). So the Existentialist must act meaningfully in the face of meaninglessness, a meaninglessness typified by the Bomb and by the camps. Nothing shows that human life is meaningless as much as the systematic destruction of innocents.

Of course, even though WWII was a tremendous psychic break, there have been other mass die-offs in the past, including the plague. But I'm assuming that Monsieur Vincent is back-projecting here; the plague and the destruction it brings is a symbolic stand-in for the destruction brought about by WWII. Which is to say that Vincent is concerned with precisely that same condition of human meaninglessness that obsessed the Existentialists. It's not just the brokenness of the world, in the abstract, that interests this movie but the brokenness of a world that has seen the camps and the Bomb--a world seemingly wholly evacuated of meaning itself.

As far as how their responses differ--that would require far more expertise in Existentialism than I have. A couple of possibilities suggest themselves, though. First, Existentialism values self-validation in the face of meaninglessness; the courage of Sisyphus comes when he chooses freely to accomplish his fated task. Similarly, in Tillich-style Christian Existentialism, the Courage to Be manifests in the fact that Being takes non-Being into itself--it embraces the grounds of its own negation, embraces--ultimately--even meaninglessness itself, and so is able to transcend that meaninglessness and reach what Tillich considered to be the God beyond the God of Scripture. 

Vincent, it seems to me, does not go that direction, though it does not reject it. The protagonist, feeling the despair of a meaningless world, still doesn't accept it as meaningless. The despair is entirely internalized; if he cannot see meaning, if he cannot see hope, it is because he is not doing enough. And so he pours himself out more and more, trying to fill that precise void. He does not make the Existentialist move of affirming that, yes, all of his work is meaningless but nevertheless he will give it meaning. 

Ultimately, I guess what's interesting to me here is not so much a matter of similarity as it is the fact that both responses seem equally tinged with despair. Whether the lack is in the world itself (meaningless, and therefore demanding to be given meaning) or the actor (incapable of doing enough), there's a definite sadness that I think is a particularly, though not uniquely, post-War phenomenon. 

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