Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Franco Zeffirelli's bankability rose dramatically with a pair of international hits from 1967
and 1968, The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet. Both were co-British
productions with ample English and American talent. But lightning didn't strike a third time,
as Brother Sun, Sister Moon lacks the romance and comedy of the previous two efforts.
What's worse, this earnest but pandering story of the great pacifist saint plays like a limp
celebration of hippie dropouts, only in the middle ages.
Deserting from a crusade, Francesco returns to his father's store in Assisi and
undergoes a personality change, becoming obsessed with birds and flowers and Christian
pacifism. His fellow warriors eventually join him in restoring a ruined church, where they begin
a communal existence, like the Lilies of the Field.
Paramount apparently tried their best to turn Brother Sun, Sister Moon into a counterculture
hit. They chopped thirteen minutes out of the Italian cut and replaced the Riz Ortolani score with
warbling songs by Donovan.
That made for a good stab at a soundtrack album but it doesn't really change the movie, which is a
flower-power version of the young Saint as he discovers his calling in life. Brother Sun, Sister
has reels of pretty long-lens zooms and TV commercial photography watching Graham Faulkner and his
pals commune with nature.
The main lesson taught is that aspiring to a holy state involves driving your relatives
bonkers. Young Francisco refuses to talk and behaves like a dimwit after recovering from his war
experience. But soon he's out on treacherous rooftops pursuing the bird of the air, to feel their
love. It helps that his father (Lee Montague) is wealthy merchant, but he does cute things like
giving all the dye workers the afternoon off and tossing his dad's entire mercantile inventory
to the crowds. Finally Francesco strips himself of his clothing and wanders off naked into the
world, to find the true meaning of living in Christian charity, filled with the love of God.
At first shunned by adults and peers alike, Francesco's zeal at rebuilding a crumbling church
fires his rich pals with the same fervor. Enter a rebellious teen sweetheart with a cherubic
smile (Judi Bowker of
Clash of the Titans), and Francesco's
got himself a great commune going, with everything he needs except Wavy Gravy.
Of course they live by begging, and their anti-greed lifestyle attracts the ire of neighbors
and the church. A hate crime leaves one of the 'brothers' dead, so Francesco takes his troupe (men
only) to Rome to ask for the Pope's blessing and an explanation of what they're doing wrong.
Pope Innocent III (Alec Guinness, in a brief and dull cameo) silences his galleries of bishops and
they oust Francesco for daring to spout gospel to his Holiness. Guinness calls them back, having
been moved by Francesco's sincerity and humility. They get their blessing, and are free to go back
to Assisi to keep doing their life's work of adoring God and begging. Cue the last Donovan ballad.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon has sanctimonious Peace & Love stamped all over it. European
films were going through a phase of Revolution-themed dramas and Spaghetti Westerns, but this one is
different in that it is very pro-Church. Hippies are really true Christians, see? The Donovan songs
sound vaguely like old folk tunes, but what the film really needed were titles telling theater
audiences when to light up. I saw the film when it came out, and didn't remember a single song.
I've forgotten them already after seeing it again. That's not quite the same impact as the soulful
tune sung at the wedding in Romeo and Juliet, which has never left me.
Zeffirelli made a couple more okay pictures before bombing out with the 1981 Endless Love.
In this mad love saga, hunky Martin Hewitt proves his devotion to his teen heartthrob Brooke Shields
by burning her parents' house down. That's only one step further than Francisco of Assisi, but
a real turn-off for audiences, as the late 70s / early 80s were the years when average Americans
realized that the goal of owning one's own house might stay out of reach forever.
Valentina Cortese plays Francesco's amiable, befuddled mom in a couple of scenes. Adolfo Celi has a
bit as a pompous church leader, fighting with his fellow churchmen about who gets the best positions
in a holy procession.
Paramount's DVD of Brother Sun, Sister Moon looks and sounds splendid, with particularly
bright colors. There are no extras, but I'll be content with the 16:9 enhancement. One of the
stills on the package back boldly shows a scene from another movie entirely - Tybalt and Mercutio
fighting from Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Can't win 'em all.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Brother Sun, Sister Moon rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 12, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson