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The life of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) as related by followers who gather after his death to tell stories so that Leone can record them: a privileged and virile youth, a prisoner of war, an heir who turns away from his father and gives all to the poor, a beggar for others, and an inspiration to friends who accept the Gospels' life of poverty. He seeks the Pope's blessing, and he endures persecution at the hands of the family of Chiara Offreduccio (1194-1253), who becomes St. Clare. Many join the order he has established and then rebel at his expectations. In near despair - and ill - he writes a Rule to take to the Pope; then, the Lord sends him a message. He dies smiling. Written by
I am continually amazed that this truly great film still receives so little recognition. There are probably multiple reasons for this. Certainly, the initial distribution was lackluster. Critical commentary is also hard to come by. Still, even in its most widely available and unfortunately truncated form (more on this later), Francesco impresses and inspires.
The decision to cast Mickey Rourke as St. Francis must seem almost like a goof to many. Those who are most likely to want to see a film of this nature might even be put off by what they may see as stunt casting by a director who is not serious. But this is just not the case. Rourke's career since this film has been spotty at best and his screen image has often descended into self-parody, but there was a time when he was a fine actor doing exemplary work and his performance here is absolutely on par with any of that. He gives us a vision of the saint which is rooted in material human essence, not overwrought histrionics. His internal changes are evoked through delicate, nuanced moments--small changes in Rourke's facial expressions, physical gestures, etc. Not a note is careless or inconsistent. The paroxysms of emotion toward the end are earned.
The development of his spiritual quest is not overstated; we are constantly positioned on the outside looking in--the film is framed by the reflections of Francesco's followers. This has the effect of heightening the aura of mystery around the man and establishing respect for him as a man, not simply an iconic caricature.
Cavani takes the religious aspect of the story very seriously; far more so than many more overtly pious films. Though every scene carefully considers the implications of faith, no points are made simply. The reality of the life Francesco chose is depicted as rough and uncompromising. The film's theological arguments are subtle and complicated, benefiting from the deeply serious tone of the piece. Having said all that, it must be added that the version currently available in the US is pretty atrocious actually. At 119 minutes, it savagely whittles the original version down by a full half hour. This is common with European films distributed in the US and isn't always unbearable. Here, though, it isn't a matter of just cutting out or trimming scenes. Whole sequences have been rearranged, creating a jumbled rhythm. Vangelis' music cues, which add so much to the emotional quality of the film, are also switched around for no apparent reason. It is a tribute to the strength of Francesco that even in such a butchered state it remains powerful (the US cut was all I could see for years), and it does benefit from the ability to hear Rourke and Bonham-Carter's real voices. If you give the film a chance and like what you see try hunting down the region 2 DVD release. It is well worth the effort to see such a glorious work in its proper form.
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