Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Flowers of St. Francis

Roberto Rossellini, 1950, 83m, Italy

St Francis of Assisi a Christian messianic figure lived in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries. The film is based on a book of the same name which recounts fifty three disconnected incidents from his life-of which the movie selects nine- referred to as flowers because of their child like sweetness. The unpretentious Saint and his dozen or so bare footed friends and followers rove in the undulating Italian country side like a troupe of joyful schoolboys whose pranks comprise somewhat fantastic acts of piety and love. The mood of the film is of exaltation born from tranformative inner experience, resulting in a zeal to share the joy with others. The highly charged prologue, a hymn of adoration and gratitude for creation, probably a direct quote from the original source, might easily be  a Vedic chant:

Praise be to Thee, my Lord,through all Thy creatures......especially brother Sun,who illuminates the day. And beautiful is he and radiant with great splendour. Of thee, most High he bears the likeness.Praise be my Lord, for sister Moon and for the stars. ln heaven, Thou hast formed them luminous, precious and fair. Praise be my Lord,for brother Wind,...and for the air and clouds,and all the weather......through which you give all Thy creatures nourishment.Praise be my Lord,for sister Water...she is greatly helpful, Praise be my Lord,for brother Fire......Praise be my Lord,for our sister, Mother Earth,who sustains us and governs us...and brings forth diverse fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

We see Francis conversing and preaching to a little bird, who trustingly perches on his hand, making no effort to fly off. The ragged bare footed band, joined by a camaraderie of faith, seem to be having a jolly time, enduring even the beatings and abuse they sometimes encounter as a joyful and welcome service to Christ. In one discourse, in the course of which they are beaten by a house owner on whom they insist on imposing their evangelization, Francis explains true happiness (this sounds like a Sufi discourse):

..even if we could make the blind see the deaf hear, exorcise demons,and raise the dead - this is not perfect happiness. Even if we knew the language of the angels, the soul's secrets,this is not perfect happiness.Were we to convert all to Christ,this is not perfect happiness.Tell me, where is perfect happiness?....... God, in his mercy, will surely show us where perfect happiness is.....(at this point the two of them receive a thorough beating).....Brother Leone, lamb of God, now that we've suffered all this for Christ it is perfect happiness.Above all the graces which Christ gives His followers is the grace to conquer oneself. Only in this is perfect happiness! We poor monks roam the world for love of others.and to endure suffering for love of Him.Only in this is perfect happiness!

In one of the hilarious but moving stories one of the comrades is captured by a tyrant but escapes with his life after sufficiently puzzling him with his attitude and behavior to win him over. This is one of the realistic natural miracles which form the substance of the film. It is reminiscent of the Buddha's encounter with the ferocious demon Angulimal.

This is beyond doubt a great film, born out of the deep spiritual insight of the director. It is outstanding cinema and captures in immaculate black and white the spirit of Christianity in pristine. Perhaps the greatest spiritual film I have seen, far, far from the madding crowds of Hollywood and Cannes..


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review - I like the movie. It is rare to find a movie both spiritual and very funny, although I still do not know well about when I can use the word "spiritual". I cannot explain them, but I like these holy fools a lot.

S. M. Rana said...

An alternate title of the film is "Francisco, God's Jester". I am also not too comfortable with the word spiritual, since it reminds me of retired people worrying about useless questions when they no longer have anything left to do. But the young monks in the film are in dead earnest as they are driven by some internal force originating in Francis.

Nathanael Hood said...


I recommend a film that you actually LIKE!

I'm so glad that you enjoyed this film. It really spoke to me personally as a Christian.

I could go on to describe how it is a stirring exercise of Neorealism and period drama...but that would be completely missing the point. The film has a much simpler message: a man with pure and simple faith. It is tempting to over-analyze and deconstruct this film...and for good reason. But to delve too deep is to miss the film's point entirely...it is a simple sermon of a man's simple faith.

I'm so glad that you enjoyed your first Rossellini. He is easily one of the most spiritual directors who ever lived...I would go so far to say that he is Italy's response to Robert Bresson.

I would HIGHLY recommend watching "Rome, Open City." It's not an exaggeration to say that it founded the movement of Neo-realism.

S. M. Rana said...

WOW!!It's nice to so completely share one's response to something! I'll take your second suggestion about "Rome, Open City" also but maybe after an interval of ten days since I'm impelled to tear myself off cinema for a week or so. I'm also keen on history and biopics but his films about Socrates, Pascal, Descartes and the Medici don't seem to be available right now, not even the one about French history you recently reviewed. What others have you seen and what was your reaction?

Jack L said...

Fantastic review,
Now I really need to see some of these films, they look great!

S M Rana said...

@Jack L

I'm new to Rossellini and very excited specially the history and biopics, which seem hard to come by here.

Nathanael Hood said...

To answer your question...I can honestly say that I have not seen a single Rossellini film that I didn't enjoy.

I would highly recommend watching "Rome: Open City" next.

Rossellini just had an earnestness to his work that made it incredibly endearing and powerful.

I would HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on as many of his films as you can.

S. M. Rana said...

Soon as I can!