The Flowers of St. Francis (Francesco, giullare di Dio) [DVD]
Director : Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay : Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Father Antonio Lisandrini, and Father Félix Morión (story by Roberto Rossellini)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1950
Stars : Brother Nazario Gerardi (St. Francis), Brother Severino Pisacane (Brother Ginepro), Esposito Bonaventura (Giovanni), Aldo Fabrizi (Nicolaio, the Tyrant), Arabella Lemaitre (St. Claire)
Roberto Rossellini made The Flowers of St. Francis as a genuine celebration of ideal Christianity -- the Zen-like benefits of absolute selflessness, humility, and love. It’s a pleasurably simple film, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is, which some viewers may find off-putting. In fact, particularly in today’s jaded era, the film’s very simplicity makes it seem utterly, almost embarrassingly naïve -- silly, even -- and it makes one wonder how the auteur behind the gritty neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City (1945) could immerse himself so easily into a disjointed series of vignettes in which idealized Franciscan monks illustrate the potential of human goodness.
Ironically, Rossellini made The Flowers of St. Francis during one of the most difficult periods of his life when his adulterous affair with actress Ingrid Bergman was the talk of the town and they were being literally denounced on the floor of the U.S. Congress. The film, then, is an affirmation of hope in a time of great despair, not only for Rossellini, but for Italy and Europe and the world in general, which was just beginning to emerge from the scalding ashes of World War II.
Cowritten by Rossellini protégé Federico Fellini and a pair of monks named Father Antonio Lisandrini, and Father Félix Morión, The Flowers of St. Francis is vastly different from most of Rossellini’s films, but only on the surface. Like his neorealist films, The Flowers of St. Francis employs nonactors to fill almost all of the roles, in this case members of the Nocera Inferiore Monastery who play the roles of St. Francis of Assisi (known as “The People’s Saint”) and the 13 monks who follow him. The only professional performer in the film is the well-known comic actor Aldo Fabrizi, who plays (rather broadly) a barbaric tyrant who is eventually won over by the absolute selflessness of one of the monks.
Also like neorealist films, The Flowers of St. Francis does not employ a typical Hollywood narrative. In fact, Rossellini takes it in the exact opposite direction by structuring the film around a series of disconnected stories, each of which invokes a positive human trait. Some of the stories are slightly comical (such as one monk’s search for a pig’s foot to help his sick brother), while others are more sustained and serious (such as St Francis’s late-night encounter with a speechless leper), but they all have in common a kind of universal joy that plays as either beautifully sincere or hopelessly hokey, depending on your viewpoint.
Despite the film’s title, Rossellini made a concerted effort not to focus the film on St. Francis, thus emphasizing the collective over the individual. In fact, if any character is given prominence in the film, it is Brother Ginepro, who appears as a major player in at least half of the stories. Ginepro is an imminently likeable soul, a simplistic, childlike young man who yearns to do good (he is chastised for constantly giving away his tunic to any poor person who asks for it). Unfortunately, Ginepro is played a little too simplistically, which makes his inherent goodness seem like a byproduct of his lack of intelligence. While St. Francis’s Christ-like approach to life appears to be the result of conscious choice, Ginepro’s seems like a natural extension of his naiveté, which threatens to equate goodness with simple-mindedness.
Nevertheless, on the whole, The Flowers of St. Francis is a beautiful and moving film if you give yourself over to its worldview. The gorgeous black-and-white imagery by cinematographer Otello Martelli draws on medieval frescos for inspiration, yet its greatest accomplishment is rendering the world as a place of hope and love, even in a time of great despair. What poetry the film has to offer lies not in its evocations of the afterlife, but of the possibility of heaven on earth.
|The Flowers of St. Francis Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 23, 2005|
|Several groups have combined efforts in recent years to restore The Flowers of St. Francis, and the luminous transfer on this disc was taken directly from the restored 35mm internegative. The image is sharp and beautiful, with excellent contrast and strong black levels, which brings out such details as the rough texture of the monks’ robes. Additional digital work with the MTI Digital Restoration System has removed virtually all traces of dirt and debris.|
|The one-channel monaural soundtrack, taken from a restored print track and digitally cleaned up, sounds good for its age, although some of the music sounds a bit muffled and distorted at the higher end.|
|Included on this disc are a trio of new video interviews conducted in 2004 with Roberto Rossellini’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, film historian Adriano Aprà, and film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, who met Rossellini in person on several occasions. As each of the three interviewees had a different relationship with both Rossellini and the film, they illuminate The Flowers of St. Francis from different angles. Also included on the disc is the American-release prologue, in which a narrator situates the story historically against a montage of medieval paintings. Apparently, a lengthier version of this prologue was included in the film when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but was cut before the general Italian release. The print used for the transfer is somewhat scratchy and hissy, which points up just how good the transfer of the film itself is. Lastly, the 36-page insert booklet contains a wealth of material, including a new essay by film scholar Peter Brunette, a reprinted article by Roberto Rossellini in which he explains his goal in making the film, a reprinted essay by André Bazin defending Rossellini’s work, and reprinted interviews with Rossellini.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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