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May 09, 2006

The Flowers of St. Francis

flowersofstfrancis.jpg

Francesco, Giullare di Dio
Roberto Rossellini - 1950
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

One day after the 100th birthday of Roberto Rossellini, I had the opportunity to view The Flowers of St. Francis. For contemporary viewers, Rossellini is difficult to evaluate properly with relatively few of his films available on DVD or even tape. I have to date seen ten of Rossellini's films representing different periods of his career, from an early feature, La Nave Bianca (1942), to a couple of his biographical films made for television in the late Sixties and early Seventies. For some filmmakers this would be enough for a general overview, yet I feel like I am barely scratching the surface in understanding why Rossellini was embraced by the critics at Cahiers du Cinema, and how he influenced other directors. While the impact of Rome, Open City and neo-realism is part of the traditional film school canon, I feel that I don't always grasp the import of the films made beginning with Stromboli.

Part of why I chose to see The Flowers of St. Francis is because I will be reviewing Michele Soavi's television film on St. Francis shortly. Not having seen any of the several films, I like to compare different filmmakers' takes on the same subject. Also, this is one of the Rossellini films I had not seen that is currently available on DVD.

Having recently written about films expressing religious faith or being about religious subjects, The Flowers of St. Francis provides an interesting contrast to the films cited at the Tribeca Film Festival. Specifically, this is a film that demonstrates that a film with religious subject matter does not have to be a solemn film. Several people have attributed the humor in Rossellini's film to co-screenwriter Federico Fellini. The Italian title of the film translates as "Francis, God's Jester". Keep in mind that religion, specifically the Catholic faith, is not ridiculed, nor are Francis or his followers. The humor is generated by the childlike innocence and literalness of the Franciscans, as well as Francis' approach to his disciples. An example is Francis' treatment of Ginepro, a follower who manifests humility in its extreme. Ginepro makes a habit of offering his own shabby robe to anyone dressed more poorly than himself, leaving himself naked. Francis "commands" Ginepro not to offer his clothing to the poor, yet his eyes move to the side, a look similar to Bob Hope uttering a double entendre. Later, when the disciples are to walk to separate destinations to spread Francis' message, they are uncertain where to go. Francis orders the men to spin around until dizzy and travel in whichever direction they land. Faith is expressed as youthful devotion to a man and a spiritual philosophy.

To a limited extent, neo-realism informs The Flowers of St. Francis. With the exception of Aldo Fabrizi in a brief role, all of the other actors are non-professionals. The Franciscans of the film are real Franciscan brothers. While the titles that precede each vignette refer to Francis as a saint, Rossellini films him as the other characters. There is no dramatic emphasis, special lighting, music or other devices used. That non-professional actors were used is more amazing in the case of the person who portrays Ginepro. There is a scene with "barbarians" in which Ginepro is tossed about between several very burly men before being dragged on the ground by a horse. The men who portrayed Francis and Ginepro all perfomed without screen credits, perhaps out of their own humility as Franciscans, but also diminishing any difference between their personal identities and those of the believers on-screen.

Posted by peter at May 9, 2006 04:37 PM