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The film dramatizes about a dozen vignettes from the life of St. Francis and his early followers - starting with their return in the rain to Rivotorlo from Rome when the Pope blessed their Rule and ending with their dispersal to preach. The unconnected chapters are like parables, some with a moral. The slight and comic Ginepro returns naked to St. Mary's of the Angels, having given away his tunic, but not his ricotta. The aged Giovanni shouts and holds onto his cape; the beatific St. Clair pays a visit. Humble Francis doubts his leadership, hugs a leper, and sends his brothers spinning, dizzy, and smiling into the world. This brotherhood is infused with whimsy as well as belief. Written by
The filmmakers wanted to donate something to the monks who acted in the film since they refused payment. According to Rossellini's daughter, he expected them to ask that the donation be something charitable - setting up a soup kitchen or the like. Instead, the monks surprised everyone by asking for fireworks. Rossellini saw to it that the town had an enormous, elaborate fireworks display that was the talk of the region for years. See more »
Beautiful, powerful and enigmatic take on the Franciscan faith
Heralded as "the most beautiful film in the world" by Francois Truffaut, and "amongst the most beautiful in Italian cinema" by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Rossellini's landmark work was actually poorly received upon release. It is based on two books - Little Flowers Of St. Francis, a 14 century piece of literature, and The Life Of Brother Juniper, which both focus on the work of St. Francis and the early Franciscans. The former is composed of 78 chapters which, rather than tell one overarching story, focuses on small stories and incidents which sum up the ideals and attitudes of the Franciscans. Rossellini adopts the same approach, albeit in only 9 chapters, each with an introductory title card.
St. Francis (played by an uncredited real-life monk Brother Nazario Gerardi) lives with his fellow Franciscans in poverty, working what they can from the land and giving as much as they can to the poor and needy. It is a belief that has elevated St. Francis into such a popular religious figure, as his philosophy was that those who lived the most difficult of lives would be the closest the God. Among the nine stories that are told, they range in purpose and tone. Some of the greatest are Francesco accepting a half-crazy old man with open arms into the Franciscan order, one of the monks unwittingly stumbling upon an army only to be sentenced to death and then powerfully overthrowing a ruthless general, and Francesco's encounter with a leper, a scene which I will discuss in a bit more detail shortly.
Although not a practising Catholic himself, directed Roberto Rossellini fell in love with the sentimental teachings of faith, which seemingly had no place in the increasingly corporate and money-loving world. It made me fall in love with the idea. I'm not religious either, but the way the Franciscans are portrayed here, almost as poor farmers who are happy to give away as much as they earn, it made me almost warm to religion. It doesn't try to preach and instead delivers its message on a smaller scale. The monks preach with love and generosity.
The film was summed up in the scene where Francesco, out in a field alone late at night, cries as his love for God overcomes him. He is awoken from his prayers by the sound of clanging bells. As he checks out the noise, he sees a lone traveller in the field. As the traveller turns to face Francesco, we see he is a leper; his face rotting and disfigured, and his body hunched. Francesco approaches him and starts to kiss the man, in awe of his suffering. Even though the leper repeatedly pulls away from Francesco, he keeps following him. Eventually, Francesco embraces the leper and lets him go on his way. It is quite possible the most powerful scene I have ever scene in film history. Initially quite shocking when we first see the face of the leper, Francesco's pursuit and eventual embrace is such a profound sentiment.
Co-written by Italian master Federico Fellini, the film maintains its neo-realistic tones while managing something more prophetic and dreamlike. It feels like you are there with Francesco, being preached to, and living amongst the colourful characters in the beautiful location where the Franciscans have settled. It manages to squeeze so much beauty and power, along with some touching comic moments, into a slim running time that never feels short, and doesn't suffer for it.
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