The Flowers of St Francis (Francesco, giullare di Dio) (1950)
Director: Roberto Rossellini
It often seems ironic to me that one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church, a hugely wealthy institution that is wedded to stiff hierarchy, is a man who espoused poverty and preached to the lay people whilst unordained himself. Perhaps this slightly anti-establishment tone to St Francis is what has made his character and life so popular, as it speaks to a tension within organised Christianity.
Rossellini's film is not a biopic of the saint, instead taking its structure from two books about St Francis and the Franciscan community. If anyone is our main character it is Brother Juniper (Ginepro in Italian) one of St Francis' younger followers. The film is a series of chronological chapters which have a small message running through them (parable-like). There are moments of humour, usually around the everyday functioning of a community, and a rather startling sequence where we see Juniper put Francis' teachings into practice; he approaches a village under rule of 'tyrant Nicalaio,' and finds himself manhandled by the warring men. In keeping with Italian Neo-Realism, most of the actors are non-professionals, and many of the monks, including the man playing St Francis, were actually Franciscan monks. I do wonder what they made of the portrayal of their founder.
This film will not appeal to everyone, but I found it rather sweet and moving. It is quite different to Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Son, Sister Moon which I do like, but boarders on parody with its portrayal of St Francis as a hippy flower child (complete with a Donovan soundtrack).