Religious dramas rank among the most difficult to portray cinematically. While notable directors like Cecil B. DeMille, George Stevens, and William Wyler have caused occasional awe with their sweeping epics and Mel Gibson was able to turn heads (as well as stomachs) in his bloody interpretation, it seems to require a smaller budget and less ambitious project to approach spiritual subjects successfully. Even more ironic is the fact that the most effective directors for delivering profound religious work are non-religious men—self proclaimed agnostics and/or atheists Luis Buñuel (Nazarín), Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to St. Mathew), and Roberto Rossellini all created religious themed films that resonate on deeper personal levels than the grand epics. That doesn't translate into box office figures of course; the epics will always reign in a far bigger audience.
Anyone living in Italy cannot
ignore the Catholic Church's influence, and so it
was with Patron Saint of Neo-Realism
and avowed atheist, Roberto Rossellini. Filming
during the year of the Jubilee (1950) while being
publicly demonized on the floor of the U.S. Senate
for his affair with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini dutifully
pays homage to the church in his episodic Flowers
of St. Francis (Francesco,
giullare de Dio). The Italian title
literally translates into "Francis, God's Jester,"
and the film contains considerable humor, but this
is likely coming more from Federico
Fellini than the more somber Rossellini. It's
also the last collaboration that the two Italian
film maestros undertook, as Rossellini stayed film
with historical realities while Fellini veered towards
his imaginative dreams after this project.
St. Francis is a character
that everyone loves, regardless of religious or
cultural persuasion—the humble monk who forsakes
his rich upbringing to live as an ascetic close
to nature, striving to grow closer to God and attracting
other quirky young followers from Assisi. And what
better "actors" to portray St. Francis and his disciples
than actual Franciscan monks! Maintaining the finest
of Neo-Realist traditions, Rossellini used a number
of monks from the Nocera Inferiore Monastery for
his ensemble cast, with Brother Nazario Gerardi
using his sincerity as St. Francis and Brother Severino
Pisacane calling upon his innocence for the vital
role of Brother Ginepro.
Filmed in the Italian countryside
with a camera relying on long takes rather than
multiple angles and editing, Rossellini's ten vignettes
focus on various spiritual themes—compassion, humility,
honesty, sacrifice, tolerance, love, childlike faith.
Yet nowhere does the film tie these so exclusively
to Christians that the struggle each monk (including
Francis) is universal--the same path towards self
improvement that Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Moslems,
and all humanity strive for. The other factor that
makes this film relatable to a broad spectrum are
generous amounts of humor, supplied primarily by
Felliniesque characters Brother Ginepro and the
simpleton Giovanni (Esposito Banaventura).
The strong opening episode
takes place when Francis and followers are caught
in a downpour, so they seek shelter. Along the way,
Rossellini finds time to unobtrusively insert an
often overlooked historical tidbit, as one of the
monks queries why God has chosen Francis to lead
them. The future saint honestly replies that it's
due to his plain appearance and his "vileness" that
he's been selected to allow all to realize that
they can follow in God's path. When arriving at
their modest hut, the monks find that a bad-tempered
peasant and his donkey have usurped their abode
and refuses to let them in. A real test of manhood
or a test of spiritual strength? Francis' response
is instructive: "Have we not now reason to rejoice?
Providence has made us useful to others."
Although many will admire
the historical sketches that show Francis meeting
with Sister Clare (Arabella Lemaitre), a leper,
and intimately associating with the birds, the vignettes
I find most memorable all feature Brother Ginepro.
These more fanciful and humorous narratives include
Ginepro's selfless act of offering his robes to
street beggars that leave him with only undergarments,
his determined search to get a pig's foot for a
sick brother, and his first preaching mission.
Supremely innocent and humble
by nature, the good hearted Ginepro ends up in a
barbarian camp where he is tossed around like a
beach ball, stretched as a jump rope, and thrown
against a scaffold before being sentenced for beheading
by tyrant Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi), who effectively
contrasts with the non-violent monk on two fronts--heavily
armored, the tyrant can barely move until cut free
and Fabirizi is the only professional actor employed
in the movie. Whether deliberate or not, Rossellini's
choice of casting works wonderfully. Fabirizi hams
up his part to the max--his stylized gestures contrasting
completely with the humble low key friar; thus,
illustrating how strong faith can overcome secular
forces without preaching the principle.
An overlooked work for years,
The Criterion Collection has graciously added this
gem to its DVD library, complete with recent video
interviews with actress (and director's daughter)
Isabella Rossellini, film historian Adriano Apra,
and film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, as well
as printed essays on Flowers of St.
Francis and on Neo-Realism.
It's a significant contribution to Rossellini's
canon that film students will want to examine, but
people from various faiths and persuasions can find
value in this simple film. Once again, a small film
from a self-proclaimed atheist illustrates spiritual
truths far more profoundly than more widely screened
spectacles that are much more obsessed with the
bloody body of Christ.