Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Flowers of St. Francis is Roberto Rossellini's answer to the despair of the Italian
neorealism he had previously been credited with initiating; through a disconnected series of
events in the story of the popular saint, it affirms Christian beliefs at their most pure.
Almost in fantasy terms, it forms the Utopian model for living represented by Francis' teachings.
Filmed simply, with a cast made up mostly of monks from a monastery, the show finds its own
balance of serenity and humor. The original Italian title Francesco, giullare di Dio
translates as "Francis, the Jester of God." It is even more
inspirational than Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew mainly because
of the natural behavior of the characters -- this is far from the 'prayer pageant' norm of religious
movies as one can get.
When we meet Francis (Brother Nazario Gerardi) he has already formed the core of his group of
followers. They labor to make a tiny church building that barely allows them to all crowd in at
the same time. The storyline is a series of ancecdotes separated by title cards. No effort
is made to tell the larger story of securing the Pope's blessing, or the relationship of Francis'
little order to the wars of the time.
The film is also free of standard filmic miracles; it's the opposite of grandiose fare like De Mille's
The King of Kings. When Francis
praises the birds of the air we're tempted to think that they flock about him simply because he's
so calm and contemplative. The 'Jester of God' title is no joke, as Francis seems more often than
not to be in charge of a group of pleasant and inoffensive crazies incapable of taking care of
themselves. A town visit results in plenty of charity help from the locals, but Francis' jolly clan
immediately gives everything away to strangers. When 'meals' are prepared, they often consist of
whatever greenery can be boiled in a pot.
Special attention is given to Brother Ginepro (Brother Severino Pisacane), a simpleton
so virtuous that he repeatedly gives his clothing away to passers-by. Giovanni (Peparuolo) is an
addled old man eagerly abandoned by his relatives, who praises and imitates Francis while seeming
to comprehend nothing.
The only segment that approaches a level of scripted normality is Brother Ginepro's adventures when
captured by a band of roaming barbarians. He's manhandled, beaten and used as a human jump-rope by the
furry pagans, all of whom are several times his size. But Ginepro reacts to every ferocious
glare and dire threat with the same look of beatific calm. Barbarian leader Aldo Fabrizi (the film's
only pro actor) does everything in his power to get a reaction of fear from the defenseless monk,
but Ginepro shows not a twinge even when it looks like his eyes are going to be gouged out. Defeated,
the hulking barbarian hugs him instead, and sends him on his way.
The Flowers of St. Francis is too gentle and pure to be a farce and plays like a gentle
fable as opposed to a comedy. The practical incompatibility of Francis' notions of living with the
harsh world around him encourages us to hope for the best. We're quickly
placed in the position of wanting the little group of eccentrics to somehow survive, for their notion
of Christian values to find a place in reality.
Rossellini clearly intends the film to be a source of reflection, for we see little of reality
impinging on the brothers, even when Francis whole-heartedly embraces a rotting leper he meets on
the road. None of the brothers becomes sick and malnourishment seems not to affect them; this is the
fable of the lilies of the field. Francis' friend Sister Clare visits to pray, and we're confronted
with one of the few 'religious' movies in which we don't instantly question the commitment of the
characters to their faith. It's a beautiful scene far above base interests, even if the monks in
the background are again busy trying to cover up Ginepro, after he's given his tunic away once more.
Rossellini also doesn't expect us to believe that Francis' literal adoption of Jesus' ways will
catch on in the world - when we last see him, the humble leader is splitting up his group to go their
separate ways. In reality, this was probably because they were starving and could no longer live as a
group. But in their enhanced view of reality, the monks will have 'succeeded' even if they soon
In its own way, The Flowers of St. Francis is a perfect balance for Luis Buñuel's jet-black
vision of piety on Earth as a cosmic joke. Buñuel's Nazarin and Simon of the Desert are
an altruist and a miracle man utterly defeated by human reality and the unequal pull of demonic temptations.
Francis' efforts advance the idea that we all would be capable of harmony if human nature were just
a little more idealistic. It's a worthwhile idea to contemplate.
Criterion's DVD of The Flowers of St. Francis presents the autere little picture in a
beautifully restored B&W image. Isabella Rossellini and critics Adriano Aprà and Father
Virgilio Fantuzzi discuss and explore the film. Nobody raises the crude but obvious idea that
Roberto Rossellini might have turned to spiritual subject matter to deflect attention from the
worldwide scandal over his marriage to Ingrid Bergman. In the late 1940s the press re-ploughed
the Rossellini and Charlie Chaplin stories seemingly as a self-righteous sideshow to the anti-Communist
The disc also includes the opening of the American release, which incorporates a little art lecture
to establish some facts about St. Francis. It plays like a tagged-on scene but reportedly was also
on preview versions of the film in Italy.
A thick insert booklet has a fascinating essay by Peter Brunette and a reprint of an interview with
Rossellini. A position paper by French critic André Bazin is a carefully worded rebuttal to an
Italian critic, written with the skill of a political diplomat. The disc producers are Jason
Altman and Heather Shaw.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Flowers of St. Francis rates:
Supplements: essays and text interviews, interview featurette with Isabella Rossellini,
Adriano Aprè and Father Virgilio Fantuzzi; alternate opening.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson