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Flowers of St. Francis, The
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 perish.
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 witch hunts.
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