Grade: B-Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Stars: Brother Nazario Gerardi, Brother Severino Pisacane

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

Italian Neo-Realism

Rossellini: Flowers of St. Francis


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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.

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