One of the 15 films listed in the category "Religion" on the Vatican film list.
The Italian title of Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis is Francesco, giullare di Dio, "Francis, God’s Jester." Yet in the pages of The Little Flowers, the one who is called the "jester of the Lord" is not Francis, but the saint’s disciple Brother Juniper. In this, Rossellini follows his source, focusing on Brother Juniper as well as Francis’s other followers as the film’s jesters or fools, trying as they do with charming naivete to stumble along in the footsteps of their master.
It’s actually a bit of a shock, watching The Flowers, to realize that Francis himself is for once neither an eccentric nor a holy fool, but the straight man — a figure of Christlike wisdom indulgently shaking his head over the well-meaning foolishness of his disciples. An apt picture, perhaps, of all our best efforts in the spiritual life in the eyes of our Lord.
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. As portrayed by the friars, Francis’ followers are certainly foolish — but they are also joyful, and even materialistic modern viewers may be able to recognize here something that is lacking in our desacralized age.
At the same time, Rossellini doesn’t cater to contemporary sensibilities by reinventing Francis as a mere eccentric free spirit, a medieval flower child, such as we find in Zefferelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Francis remains challenging to modern audiences here, his childlike spirit joined to insistence on strict religious obligation and ultimately to zeal for evangelization. All three of these principles converge with sublime perfection in the delightful climactic episode, drawn from the Little Flowers, in which Francis commands his followers "under holy obedience" to spin around "like children at play" until they collapse from dizziness, at which point they must strike out in whatever direction they are facing to preach the gospel.
As Rossellini himself has indicated, The Flowers of St. Francis is neither a complete biography of the saint nor a total portrait of Franciscan spirituality. Bookended between Francis’s return from Rome at the beginning and his sending out of the brothers to preach at the end, the episodic film makes no attempt to cover Francis’s early life and conversion, or his reception of the stigmata and his death.
Instead, The Flowers 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." In this spirit of Franciscan joy and detachment, Rossellini felt, was "the most accomplished form of the Christian ideal," and in his film he tried to capture what he called "the perfume of the most primitive Franciscanism" as preserved in The Little Flowers.
The fruit of his efforts is a beautifully simple little film that is as much a tribute to the spirit of humane curiosity in which the film itself was made as to the heritage of spirituality that is its transcendent theme.
How is it, then, that Cavani succeeds in making Francesco neither an attractive hero of secular virtues nor an off-putting champion of spiritual ones? How does she come to make her protagonist off-putting without being otherworldly, earthbound without being attractive? By what mysterious process has this vibrant human firebrand, this unpredictable, leaping, shouting zealot, been transformed into the sheepish, subdued, self-deprecating cipher we see here played by sighing, shyly grinning Mickey Rourke?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.