21 September 2005 | AndreaValery
The priest and the poor - a symbiotic relationship?
Before the welfare state there was private charity. Often springing from the ranks of the Christian church, private individuals founded hospitals, hospices, orphanages, and attempted in general to alleviate the misery of the impoverished. Seventeenth century France saw the apogee of the French monarchy, of French power and culture. The monarchy itself sometimes created hospices for the poor. One such was the hospice of Salpétrière founded to help women in trouble or without means. Today it is the hospital that made headlines for a while, since Princess Diana died there.
This film is the story of one man's private endeavor to alleviate suffering. He must be distinguished from today's bleeding heart types in that Vincent de Paul gave up the totality of his possessions to actually go live among the poor. Interesting questions are raised about the psychological underpinnings of poverty itself and the nature of a man willing to renounce comfort to dwell amidst filth, germs and other indignities. He himself acknowledges with some alarm that he is as dependent on the poor as they on him.
He learns that the poor are violent, petty, selfish and arrogant, demanding more than they give in return. But he also finds people willing to improve their lot and to assist him in his Herculean efforts. He is shocked at the conditions in which they live, shocked even more at their resistance to improvement. But Christian charity is a burden that requires one to redouble one's efforts by giving love unrelentingly to those who unrelentingly shun personal responsibility and who hate the one toiling on their behalf. Still, even Vincent de Paul would not continue with such exertions did he not perceive that he was making progress.
The depiction of his wealthy female benefactors is fascinating because they are well-intentioned women willing to do good works, but unable to go beyond a certain limit of generosity. They are painfully honest about the repugnance they feel at the sight of an illegitimate baby.
Few of us could do what Vincent did, living like one obsessed. Likewise, few actors could match the electrifying performance of Pierre Fresnay, whose charisma seems to be divinely inspired. He was one of several great French actors of the classical theater who left an enduring legacy on film. Sir Alec Guinness said Fresnay was his favorite actor.
All in all, a classic with unforgettable performances and haunting black and white photography.