In movies about saints' lives during Hollywood's golden age (1930-'66), you could always tell when the hero or heroine was about to do something holy. A loud choir of heavenly angels would drown out everything else on the soundtrack, heavily underlining the sanctity of the moment.
This kind of sentimental piety was an important part of the popular culture of the time: an honest and simple attempt to satisfy the religious yearnings of its audience. Although the storytelling methods are easy to ridicule nowadays, at least those movies tried to dramatize the spiritual side of our natures in a Christian manner. Today's mass entertainment doesn't pay as much attention to the subject, and society is poorer for it.
Italian writer-directors Roberto Rossellini (Open City) and Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief) are considered the fathers of neo-realism, an influential movement which wanted to make movies about ordinary people instead of heroes. Its films have the realistic look of documentaries rather than the sanitized, make-believe gloss of studio-made movies. Whether comedies or dramas, they emphasize the effect of their characters' social and political environment on their destinies.
Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis, first released in 1950, applies these innovative ideas to the life of a saint. Nothing about it seems dated today. Shot on location, with a cast which includes real-life peasants and religious, it authentically recreates the 13th-century world in which Francis and his early followers lived.
Its simple, spare style turns the movie into a sincere expression of Franciscan spirituality. The neo-realist point of view communicates the saint's message of humility and sanctified poverty more effectively than the slick techniques of that era's Hollywood films.
Francis, the son of a rich Italian cloth merchant, was born in Assisi in 1181 or 1182. As a young man, he enjoyed hedonistic pursuits and hoped to become a professional soldier. A series of dreams convinced him to follow Jesus Christ instead.
The saint lived like a beggar, giving all he had to the poor. Even though his father disinherited him, he began to attract a small band of followers who called themselves the Penitents of Assisi. When their number reached 11, he drew up a written rule to guide them and traveled to Rome to get the Pope's approval.
The Flowers of St. Francis takes place in 1211 and 1212 after Francis' return from the Holy See. He and his followers settle outside Assisi, building a few small huts made of stone, mud and straw around the tiny chapel of St. Mary of the Angels.
The film was written by several hands: Rossellini, Federico Fellini (La Strada and 8 1/2), Father Antonio Lisandrini and Father Felix Morion. It isn't a conventional drama, with a central conflict which resolves itself in a cathartic climax. Instead, the action unfolds in a series of episodes which show how Franciscan spirituality evolved and what its basic tenets are.
There's no narrative suspense. Each individual section is less than 10 minutes long, introduced by a title card which describes in summary form what will follow. The incidents chosen include some that actually happened outside the given time frame or owe more to legend than to fact.
The first sequence sets the tone. It's a cold, windy, rainy day. As Francis (Brother Nazario Gerardi) and his small band of followers slog their way barefoot through the mud, their coarse woolen robes don't seem adequate to protect them from the elements. The saint is preaching about the connection between joy and peace. “Christians must love the struggle,” he says. “God has permitted us to be useful to others.”
One of the brothers takes a tumble in the middle of a huge puddle. Thoroughly soaked, he picks himself up with the help of the others. But the pratfall hardly seems to register on his consciousness as he enthusiastically joins the rest of the group in a hymn of praise to God.
This combination of innocence and devout fervor characterizes the brothers in all the other episodes as Francis exhorts them to “preach by example rather than words.” The most vivid illustration is the incident involving the barbarian tyrant, Nicholas (Aldo Fabrizzi), who sets siege to a nearby Italian city. Nicholas' soldiers capture one of Francis' followers and savagely beat him. But the brother's courageous and forgiving spirit in the face of humiliation and death touches something deep inside the tyrant. As a result, Nicholas lifts the siege and spares the city's inhabitants.
In another episode, Francis teaches that “perfect joy” cannot be achieved through good works alone but is also a matter of spirit. On a wintry night, when a rich man denies shelter to him and a brother who are proclaiming the Gospel, the saint explains that this rejection brings them closer to “perfect joy” because now they're “suffering for Christ.”
Rossellini doesn't neglect Francis' whimsical side, which includes an appreciation of nature. As the saint recites the Lord's Prayer alone in the woods, the birds become silent. Some rest on his shoulder. In the same spirit, his followers prepare a carpet of freshly picked flowers for the visit of St. Clare (Arabella Lemaitre), his spiritual friend who founds the Second Franciscan Order of Poor Ladies, or Poor Clares, based on his rule.
The Flowers of St. Francis doesn't monized choir of angels on its sound-track to let us know when its characters are close to God. We can tell by the light in the brothers' eyes as they struggle to do God's will through humble acts of charity and compassion.
We witness the peace they find in a life of service and suffering, sustained by worship built on prayer and song.
Rating: general patronage (U.S. Catholic Conference) John Prizer currently writes from Paris.