DVD Picks & Passes 01.17.2010

The Reluctant Saint (1962)

Blu-ray: 8 1/2 (1963)

Making its welcome debut on DVD thanks to Ignatius Press, Edward Dmytryk’s The Reluctant Saint stars Maximilian Schell as St. Joseph of Cupertino, the slow-witted but devout Franciscan friar and mystic whose proneness to miraculous levitations is celebrated in his patronage of air travel as well as mental handicaps.

Like the Vatican list film The Flowers of St. Francis by Roberto Rossellini, The Reluctant Saint offers a gently humorous celebration of Franciscan simplicity, poverty of spirit and love of nature and animals. Like St. Francis’ followers in Rossellini’s film, Joseph can be foolish and short-sighted, but his childlike spirit and humility mark him as a true son of Francis — as the vicar general of the Franciscan order, a high-ranking prelate but a son of peasant stock, shrewdly sees.

Filmed on location in the Lazio region of Italy with a supporting cast of Italian actors, The Reluctant Saint creates an authentic Italian peasant milieu unlike most similar productions of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Saint movies often require an opponent or devil’s advocate, and in this case the role goes to a young Ricardo Montalban as proud, well-spoken Franciscan friar Don Raspi. Don Raspi has no patience for Joseph’s disaster-prone, diffident ways, and resists acknowledging Joseph’s miraculous experiences, even imputing the alleged phenomena to diabolic possession.

Daringly, the film waits more than an hour before getting to Joseph’s miracles, and sums up the saint’s own holy nonchalance in a typically humorous final scene in which Joseph floats along amid a procession of chanting Franciscans, his robe gripped firmly by Don Raspi. What really matters, the film suggests, is not Joseph’s ecstatic response to holy things, but the holy things themselves.

New on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, Vatican-list film 8 1/2 is Federico Fellini’s celebration of style over substance — a self-indulgent, semiautobiographical tale of a dissolute, creatively blocked director named Guido (Marcello Mastroiani) lost in a world of fantasy, memory and self-delusion.

What makes the film work is Fellini’s imaginative virtuosity, his ability to express conscious and subconscious anxieties and obsessions in imagery of dreamlike power.

Take the opening sequence: a claustrophobic scene of a man suffocating in a car in a traffic jam in a tunnel; a bird’s-eye view of the same man now free, soaring high in the air like a kite, a rope around his leg held by a man far below on the ground. Fellini’s images reach past the defenses of the rational mind with the haunting power of a dream from which one has only just awakened.

P.S. Trivia tidbit: This week’s DVD Picks might seem to have nothing in common, but they do: Filmed in Italy within a year of one another, both films were scored by Italian composer Nino Rota.

Content advisory: The Reluctant Saint: Nothing objectionable. Fine family viewing. 8 1/2: Ambiguous depiction of dissolute behavior and attitudes, including an extramarital affair and a surreal harem fantasy sequence. Subtitles. Mature viewing.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy