It just happens that today is both the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and the opening day of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
You can read my full review of Gravity here at NCRegister.com. For the short version, see below.
Actually, I guess there’s a sort of connection, insofar as Gravity is full of the wonder of creation. It even connects the awe of the heavens with human religious instinct.
Come to think of it, if St. Francis could have seen the Earth from orbit, he might have written a Canticle of the Earth as well as a Canticle of the Sun.
For that matter, if Francis were an astronaut stranded in orbit and attempting reentry, just as he politely asked Brother Fire, when his infected eye was to be cauterized, to “temper your heat so that I can endure it,” I suppose he might ask Brother Air to be kind and not burn him up, and Sister Earth to embrace him gently on his return.
(Okay, bit of a stretch.)
Anyway, here’s the Gravity 60 second review. Comments about St. Francis movies below.
So there are a bunch of movies about St. Francis. One of them is actually good.
The best-known film about St. Francis is probably Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (unreviewed by me, but not unseen, alas).
Zeffirelli himself is probably best known for his Romeo and Juliet and the epic TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth.” Both of those are worth seeing; Brother Sun, Sister Moon not so much.
Chesterton said that there were two ways a biography of Francis of Assisi could go wrong: by focusing only on the aspects of his personality that are congenial to people today, and by focusing only on the bits that we find foreign and off-putting.
Zeffirelli commits the first mistake, turning Francis into a prototypical flower child, with Donovan’s syrupy folk soundtrack sealing the deal. Blech.
The one really good St. Francis movie, Roberto Rossellini’s lovely Flowers of St. Francis, triumphantly avoids this mistake. (Flowers of St. Francis is one of the 45 films of the 1995 Vatican film list.)
Redolent with the fragrance of the earliest Franciscan spirituality, the film focuses, in Rossellini’s words, on “the merrier aspect of the Franciscan experience, on the playfulness, the ‘perfect delight,’ the freedom that the spirit finds in poverty, and in an absolute detachment from material things.”
At the same time, Rossellini is willing to push back on his audience’s sensibilities, with Francis’s childlike spirit joined to insistence on strict religious obligation and ultimately to zeal for evangelization—three themes that come together with sublime perfection in the transcendent finale.
In keeping with the Italian neorealist precept of casting non-professional actors in suitable roles, Francis and his followers are played, appropriately, by the Franciscan friars of the Nocere Inferiore monastery in Rome.
The really, really awful St. Francis movie—also a Vatican film list honoree, if you can believe it—is Liliana Cavani’s Francesco, starring a horrifically miscast Micky Roarke as the Poverello of Assisi. No, I am not kidding, and I wish I could say that was the worst of the movie’s sins.
Where does Francesco fall on Chesterton’s scale of ways a St. Francis biography can go wrong? It’s clean off the chart. No, really. It’s like the Last Temptation of Christ of Saint Francis movies. Read the review if you want to know more.
There are other St. Francis movies, including a pair of recent biopics distributed by Ignatius Press, an okay 2002 production and an also okay film on Francis and Clare. There’s also a well-known but little-seen 1962 Hollywood film directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Dolores Hart (now Mother Dolores Hart) as Clare (unseen by me).
One last film worth mentioning: Although it doesn’t feature St. Francis himself, The Reluctant Saint, about St. Joseph of Cupertino, a Franciscan friar, is the most profoundly Franciscan movie I’ve seen this side of The Flowers of St. Francis.
P.S. See other recent 60 second reviews: Cloudy with Meatballs 2, Ron Howard’s Rush, Hugh Jackman in Prisoners and my tribute to The Wizard of Oz.