Review: The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
It’s fitting that a neorealist filmmaker like Roberto Rossellini would be drawn to St. Francis of Assisi and his unique brand of ascetic Christianity. No saint better suits the unadorned style, emotional humility, and poverty-stricken stories of Italian neorealism. This makes it somewhat surprising that Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis was dismissed upon release and only redeemed years later by the likes of Andrew Sarris and Francois Truffaut. At least the film finally got its due as an ode to the simplicity and absolute faith of St. Francis and his followers. Few works of art better capture the humility and joy of Franciscan Christianity without transforming that joy into a pseudo-pantheistic muddle.
The Flowers of St. Francis recounts nine vignettes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, all set after his return from Rome and before he sent his disciples to evangelize across Italy. It begins with Francis (Brother Nazario Gerardi) and his followers traipsing through mud during a rainstorm. When they finally arrive at the shelter they constructed before they left for Rome, they find a farmer holed up inside with his donkey. They move inside to share the shelter with him, but the farmer pushes them outside and they do not resist. They bear the ignominy with a smile and head along their way.
Rossellini’s film is a series of lessons in humility and the rocksteady persistence of simple faith. It never adds internal conflict to Francis and his community. There is no spiritual turmoil in this Francis, but neither is he depicted as a simple fool unaware of the hardship of his chosen life. There are allusions to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” but Francis is never portrayed as a flower child or hippie. In fact, he’s not even the film’s main focus, instead playing the straight man to his more foolish disciples, as Steven Greydanus points out in his review at Decent Films.
The Flowers of St. Francis instead focuses on St. Junipero (Brother Severino Pisacane), the simplest of Francis’s followers, who adores his teacher and God, but lacks all manner of wits. Whenever he does something foolish, such as cook all the friars’ food in one go or cut off the leg of a pig to make broth for an ill brother, Francis smiles and shakes his head, in acknowledgement that Junipero is truly a foolish man with a good heart. But Francis never scorns him, instead teaching with love and putting his simple faith to work for larger purposes.
In the film’s core vignette, we find Junipero at the mercy of a tyrant (Aldo Fabrizi) raiding a local village. The tyrant’s men throw Junipero around like a ragdoll, taunting and beating him prior to his intended execution. But with each beating and accusation, Junipero simply smiles and accepts the men’s hatred. He does not blame them, which melts the tyrant’s anger and eventually leads him to give up his siege and return home.
This is the film’s key lesson: that the absolute faith and absolute humility of Francis and his followers, in imitation of Christ, overcome all adversity. But that doesn’t mean Francis and his followers are exalted and glorified, nor is life easy for them. Rossellini never frames them as triumphant heroes. Instead, he frames them as diminutive figures, often overwhelmed by nature or the figures they meet in their evangelism. Rossellini saves most close-ups for Francis and even then, he lingers on his amused reactions to his followers instead of constantly deifying him with the camera.
Rossellini cast actual monks in the roles of the friars and their faith translates on screen. It registers that the performers comprehend the emotions of the characters they play; they are not baffled by their characters’ unimpeachable faith and never betray inner conflict. All these details about faith and persecution and simplicity make it sound as if The Flowers of St. Francis is a dull and dour film, but it is anything but. It deftly captures the looseness and humour of Francis and medieval life in general. It relishes the happiness of the friars’ faith while also capturing the humour of their clumsiness and foolish actions.
The Flowers of St. Francis is not entirely enjoyable in a conventional sense. The camera is simple and what conflict exists on screen overlooks any emotional turmoil. The characters do not go on any “journey,” so to speak, and you’ll likely be perplexed if absolute faith is a foreign concept to you.
But there is beauty and wisdom here. It may not be a definitive portrait of St. Francis of Assisi as a human being, but as a work of religious veneration and a wedding of style and subject matter, it is unimpeachable. Sometimes great art makes for lousy drama.
8 out of 10
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Italy)
Directed by Roberto Rossellini; written by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini; starring Brother Nazario Gerardi, Brother Severino Pisacane, Esposito Bonaventura, Aldo Fabrizi, Arabella Lemaitre, Brother Nazareno, Brother Raffaele, Brother Robert Sorrentino.