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The Flowers of St. Francis: The Criterion Collection

Christian-themed movies generally occupy a sort of cinematic purgatory. Turgid, moralistic, and simple, they rarely please critics or theologians but frequently manage to connect with the fervent masses. From Cecil B. DeMille's silent The Ten Commandments to postwar epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told to (shudder) Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, such films focus on the sensational aspects of the faith and neglect the portions that most accurately reflect the sentiments people generally think of as "Christian." Then again, perhaps this superficial bent is unique to American takes on the Gospels. European auteurs tend to have a more thoughtful approach, a simplicity of purpose seen to best effect in Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, but also evident in Roberto Rossellini's 1950 The Flowers of St. Francis. Granted, Rossellini's film, unlike the others mentioned, isn't a "life of Christ" saga, which removes a great deal of weight from its shoulders. It's not even a straightforward biography, but rather a series of sketches and anecdotes illustrating the beatific attitude toward life of St. Francis of Assisi. This attitude, at least as shown here, is one of bemusement, poverty, and peaceful simplicity, as practiced by Francis and his small group of followers. This poverty and simplicity make the Franciscans perfect subjects for the no-frills, neo-realistic camera of Rossellini. De-emphasizing the character of the saint himself and making him essentially one among equals, Rossellini chooses tales which demonstrate the innocent follies of the monks, all of whom are played by actual Franciscans Rossellini met while filming Paisan in 1946. Chief among these is Brother Ginepro, a talkative, bumbling fellow who tends to take Francis' messages of charity too literally — his first appearance comes after he has given away his clothing to a beggar seeking alms. "You mustn't give away your tunic," Francis reminds him. He also "convinces" a still-living pig to donate its foot for a sick man's meal. Ginepro's frequent foil is Giovanni "the simpleton," if only because these two are the only ones left behind when the rest of the group goes off to preach. The most elaborate of the ten vignettes has Ginepro captured by a barbarian chieftain (Aldo Fabrizi, the only professional actor in the cast), used as a human jump-rope and threatened with violence. His Gandhian passivity sees him through, in keeping with the film's message that Christianity is a religion of peace and love. The fact that The Crusades were going on at this same time is never mentioned, nor is it ever made clear why Francis and his brethren must believe in an invisible superman in the sky before they can live such moral lives. But these are surely blasphemous objections, and somewhat beside the point. The generally lighthearted approach to these spiritual questions is in line with the film's original Italian title, Francis, God's Jester. As probably the most popular Catholic saint, the patron of small animals and hippies, Francis was also the subject of Franco Zeffirelli's 1972 Brother Sun, Sister Moon. The earlier film may be less psychedelic, but it's just as idealistic.

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The Criterion Collection's edition of The Flowers of St. Francis includes a full-screen presentation (1.33:1) in the film's original Academy ratio. The image, while doubtlessly much-improved, is still subject to frequent scratches and softness, and the monaural soundtrack has all the depth and resonance one would expect from a production like this (which is to say, very little). The disc includes an interview with Isabella Rossellini, Roberto's daughter, who has some solid things to say on the attempts to redefine morality in postwar Europe; she also relates how the monks in the film used their wages to mount a fireworks show for their hometown. Film historian Adriano Apra, in another interview, refers tantalizingly to a lost eleventh episode from the film, in which Francis met a prostitute. Film critic and priest Father Virgilio Fantuzzi tells an amusing anecdote about a screening of the film for the man who would become Pope John XXIII. Oddly for such a Christian film, the DVD features no Easter eggs. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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