In 1996 the Vatican's Pontifical Commission for Social Communications published a list of 45 films of special merit. Most of the titles are both artistic master-works and enlightened guides for spiritual development. The exception is Francesco, originally released in 1989. Its message is as challenging as the other selections on the list, but its dramatic execution is rough and uneven. Some may find parts of it offensive.

For almost eight centuries, each generation has found different things to admire in the rich heritage of Franciscan spirituality. Francesco tries a new tack, presenting St. Francis of Assisi (played by Mickey Rourke) as a Generation-X hero. Italian director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) and co-screenwriter Roberta Mazzoni depict him as unshaven, short on manners and skeptical of authority. He's always taking chances and pushing things to the edge — a countercultural role model for our times.

But the filmmakers aren't pandering to what's currently fashionable in secular circles. The saint isn't presented as a moral relativist who rebels against Church doctrine and the hierarchy. He's orthodox in all matters of faith. His conflict is with the prevailing culture of his time. His passionate efforts to follow Christ's teachings push him to adopt a radical lifestyle. He and his followers find that the seriousness of their commitment places them in opposition to the norms of 13th-century Italian society.

The movie also departs from the usual stereotypes about the saint's temperament. The filmmakers present him as a rugged, masculine heman, not a fey do-gooder who likes to make nice with the birds.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks after Francis’ death. Those who were closest to him remember when they first met and how he changed their lives. As our current age is concerned with women's rights, the filmmakers emphasize the point of view of St. Clare (Helena Bonham Carter) and the particular problems she faces as a female in medieval times.

The flashbacks begin with the saint as a privileged adolescent doted on by his merchant father (Edward Farelly) who “spends a fortune to bring him up as a gentleman.” We see him as a sensuous, spoiled youth who likes to party, humiliating a leper who disrupts one of his revels.

Giving it All for God

Francis aspires to become a soldier and a knight. His father supports him in this ambition and hopes he'll win a coat of arms, a step up the social ladder for a member of the bourgeoisie.

The movie dramatizes the effect on Francis of his service in a war against Perugia and how its horrors make him more serious and reflective. He's taken prisoner by the enemy and witnesses the flailing of a heretic who has translated the Bible into Italian. The saint reads Jesus’ words in his native tongue for the first time, using one of the dead man's translated texts, and begins to take them to heart.

Back in Assisi, Francis hangs out in the poor part of town where Clare is performing charitable deeds in a sincere but conventional manner, living at home in comfort while slumming during the day. Even so, her work seems more connected to the words of the Gospel than Francis’ own life. Something clicks inside him, and a personality transformation takes place.

His father expects him to sign up for the next war and has outfitted him splendidly. But the saint gives his armor to a soldier from a less prosperous background and decides to go Clare one better, living among the poor while ministering to them. He also sells goods from the family business without permission and distributes the proceeds among the needy. His father retaliates by suing him in court.

This parental estrangement is only the beginning. The movie vividly captures the go-for-broke nature of Francis'commitment and how foolish it can sometimes appear. “The poor live on nothing,” he says. “We can learn from them.”

The saint declares himself a penitent and supports himself by begging. He ministers to the outcasts who live outside the city walls. But his real troubles begin when other members of the youthful bourgeoisie decide to join him, including Clare. When they too divest themselves of their possessions, they're ridiculed and sometimes met with violence. Their kin-folk are enraged; other beggars take advantage of their generosity. Unfortunately, the awkwardness of some of these scenes generates unintentional laughs.

A Man of the Church

But thankfully, the filmmakers resist the trap into which most contemporary movies fall (e.g. Stigmata, The Third Miracle, etc.) and refuse to suggest that this celibate saint is tempted by the flesh. No romantic sparks fly between Francis and Clare. They're both presented as chaste, spiritual seekers whose journeys influence each other.

The local bishop, who's surprisingly sympathetic to Francis’ ministry, warns him that he can't offer protection unless he goes to see the Pope. The saint and his followers travel to Rome, and when Francis humbly promises “to love you without restraint or judgment,” the Holy Father defies his advisers and blesses him.

The saint soon attracts a legion of followers but remains as stubborn and abrasive as ever. He often lives by himself in the woods, receiving there the stigmata which he considers a divine gift.

Francesco is a daring work characterized by hits and misses. It never takes the easy way out by lapsing into whimsical sentimentality. Its tone is rough, raw and passionate, just like the grunge rock that was popular when it was made.

Arts ↦ Culture correspondent

John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.