The Flowers of St. Francis
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 31 May 2005
Source Masters of Cinema/Eureka! DVD
Let’s get this out of the way first: I am not a fan of the films of Roberto Rossellini. I don’t have any particular dislike for his films, but, much like the films of Fritz Lang, I guess I just don’t see what everyone else seems to see in them. To me, Rossellini’s films feel languid and clumsy. He made movies for forty years and never seemed to transcend a journeyman style.
Now that I have fired this opening salvo, one that is sure to curl the hair of my colleagues, let me tell you a few things about Rossellini’s interesting little work from 1950, Francesco, giullare di Dio, variously known as Francis, God’s Jester and The Flowers of St. Francis. Made in between loose trilogies—the war trilogy of Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Germany, Year Zero and the trilogy with Ingrid Bergman of Stromboli, Europa ‘51, and Voyage in Italy—the film seems to be a quirk in Rossellini’s filmography, whereas it’s probably one of his most interesting films.
Francesco does not intend to tell the life story of the saint known as Francis of Assisi. In fact, the film takes place in between two momentous events in the life of Francis: it begins just after the approval of the Friars Minor by Pope Innocent III and it ends just at the dispersal of his group to preach the gospel around Europe. Moreover, the title itself is something of a misnomer. The man known as “the renowned jester of the Lord” was Fra Ginepro (or, as anglicized, Brother Juniper), and the various scrapes and pickles he got himself into take up about half the running time of the film.
Rossellini’s movie uses as its basis the Fioretti di San Francesco d’Assisi, a collection of popular legends about Francis and his fellow penitents. The provenance and authenticity of the tales are questionable, but it is largely an irrelevant matter as the book is not a catalogue of miracles but rather a series of gentle parables of faith and simple examples of a religious life. Rossellini does not adorn the tales he uses for the film with ostentatious piety nor does he suffuse his direction with exceptional reverence. He does not attempt a living hagiography of the original friars, but a realistic portrayal (by real monks) of simple men doing simple work in the service of God.
While I am, as a rule, skeptical of films with religious themes and prefer the more sober spiritual works of Bresson, Bergman, and Dreyer when I do partake of the genre, I cannot deny that Rossellini’s film has an uncomplicated charm and an effortless beauty that provides a stimulating alternative to the bloated, ponderous Biblical epics so popular in Hollywood in the early 1950s. Though it has not made me a convert to the cult of Rossellini, I am happy to have seen Francesco and appreciate the courage of the folks at Masters of Cinema in giving such a small, unpretentious film such a lavish, loving release.