Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Flowers of St. Francis

The story of Don Quixote is often interpreted as a story of a Christian saint in a post-religious age. I was repeatedly reminded of it while watching Roberto Rossellini's 1950 film The Flowers of St. Francis which dramatizes a few events in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Though unlike Cervantes Rossellini and his co-writer Fellini are fully on the side of the Quixotic monks. (The Don Quixote question is quite debatable though. Nabokov famously called it a sadistic book which most people find quite unfair.)

Just like in Quixote, the Christian values that the monks want to live by and spread in the world seem hopelessly out of place and anachronistic but the film captures these contradictions with extraordinary warmth, humour and a generosity of spirit which really elevates into a totally different category. The monks are played by real-life monks, so the acting itself is quite spontaneous even when it is a bit awkward. The film is shot in the standard neo-realist style with minimum cuts, full of medium shots and largely improvised mise-en-scene.

All the episodes are beautiful and moving, though some are funnier than others. My favourite is when brother Juniper goes to ask "brother pig" for his leg so that he can feed the soup to his ailing brother in the chapel. Even for a sentimental vegetarian like me, it was really funny. In an earlier scene the same Brother Juniper with his even dottier fellow brother Giovanni prepares an omnibus soup enough for a few weeks so that they have free time to preach. Another particularly funny episode was towards the end titled "How Brother Francis and Brother Leon experienced those things that are perfect happiness." I will not spoil it for you by revealing Francis's definition of "perfect happiness" you have to see it for yourself. (It was another scene which had parallels in Don Quixote.)

In short a warm, funny and a great religious film. A longer essay on the film here.

3 comments:

puccinio said...

I have to say that I was stymied by your reaction to ''Flowers of St. Francis''. It's valid I guess but still it runs contrary to what most people in general understand about this film as well as ''Il Miracolo'', Rossellini's other more controversial religious parable.

You have to understand that the film was addressing an audience that had been through a Second World War and aware of the Holocaust. Which is why Rossellini, the great atheist Catholic Communist(yep he was all three) director returned to St. Francis of Assissi, one of the most beloved of all saints who began his practice in an Europe udner fire of the Black Death and the absolute mismanagement of the Church in it's wake.

Basically Francis isn't a Quixotic figure...not in the sense Quixanos is who is touched in the head. Franceco di Assissi was born in a wealthy family who gave it all up for a life of charity and devotion to his fellow man...in no uncertain terms does a person give up comfort and wealth for it's antithesis on a whim or flight of fancy, that's a choice made by a person after of intelligence...an existential choice(before the fact) to be sure.

What Rossellini's message in this film is trying to convey the essential survival of humanity. The victory of the Friars is that they are able to maintain their humanity, their compassion and yes their childlike innocence not by living in a secluded monastery but by living in the woods among barbarians, lepers.

That episode with the two of them in search for perfect happiness was intended to be genuinely disturbing rather than funny. Basically the only happiness people can get is by not letting themselves get angry or billious at the rotten world. Not ignoring it perse but by not getting boggd down.

That's a different message than ''Don Quixote'' which says that the idiots are better off than the smart guys which is sadistic if you think about it...

There are many people who misread the film and think that Francesco is a fool figure...that's not the case in the final scene when he dismisses the Friars Minor and they ask where do they go, he says that they should be like children and turn around the ground. He's aware that it's being childish but places importance in the act nonetheless.

It's a great film...and it's great because of Rossellini's subtle ironic touch that people can't see at once but only after seeing it over for say six-seven times. Rossellini was inspired to make a film on St. Francis after he did a segment on the Franciscians in ''Paisan'', compare the two and you'll find a shocking counterpoint.

By the way read Scorsese's essay on the Masters of Cinema website!!!

Alok said...

The Don Quixote comparison was perhaps a little confusing. There are many different ways to see the Quixote character too. I didn't want to make St. Francis look like a whimsical figure with fanciful ideas. He like Quixote *sincerely* believes in his principles and lives by them even if they are totally at odds with the the outside world. Like in the "perfect happiness" it is easy to see that he is not rationalising after what happened in order to justify it, he really believes in that definition sincerely and it is to Rossellini's credit that in the scene even if it is funny we don't laught at them... we laugh with them, even moved by what he says.

What you are saying about the post-war scenario and holocaust didn't really appear obvious to me. I think if he indeed had that in mind he could have put more episodes about the general conditions medieval life (the plagues, the wars etc.). More like The Seventh Seal. It is entirely valid to read the story of St. Francis in historical context and derive parallels in the contemporary world but the film doesn't highlight or stress this aspect. It felt very decontextualised to me. The Paisan episode is much more interesting in this aspect. I think Fellini wrote that one too.

Also, thanks for pointing to the Martin Scorsese essay. He says similar things in his documentary too.

puccinio said...

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More like The Seventh Seal.
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Well simply parading the comparison would be obvious, don't you think? Though Rossellini does make it clear with the scene with the leper and the end when Fra Ginepro gets captured by those crazy goths. Clashing pacificism with barbarianism.

However the difference between the two films is that while both of them are parables in form...even if it's based on historical figures, the source for Rossellini's film is a book of folk tales on St. Francis...the focus is difference. For Bergman, the major question is the ''silence of God'' not so for Rossellini.

For Rossellini in his films that deal with Christian themes aren't made for professing his faith in the papacy but rather to cross borders and find a common ground across all people. He famously said that the principle of Neo-Realism is "Love Thy Neighbour". For Rossellini, St. Francis was someone of interest because he practised rather than preached. Same for Jesus of Nazareth who was the subject of his last film ''Il Messia''...the film he planned after that was on Karl Marx - The world's two most influential Jews.

Rossellini wasn't devout in the slightest bit but in a country as Catholic as Italy he felt that the best way to reach a big audience was to remind people that the underlying principles of Christianity and Socialism were pretty much the same. That was Pasolini's intent in making his film on Jesus, to show him as a working class revolutionary who revolted against the bougeois Pharisees and Romans and he was able to achieve it without altering one line from the Gospel of Mathew which he literally used as his screenplay.

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He like Quixote *sincerely* believes in his principles and lives by them even if they are totally at odds with the the outside world.
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Well if you think anyone who sincerely believes in anything is quixotic then that would include practically everyone because all people do live their lives according to ideals. The difference is how they execute it. Quixote thinks he can do it by following it to the letter word for word based on books written about Knights of the Crusades while Francis is interested in doing it on the spirit.

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The Paisan episode is much more interesting in this aspect. I think Fellini wrote that one too.
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That one basically shows how far the Franciscians had strayed from their founder's plans. It also serves as a reminder of the Catholic Church's notorious absence from the Second World War. That ironic comment by that chaplain of thanking those friars for reminding him about his faith basically to Rossellini(and Fellini's) means that there's no salvation within the church.

Rossellini was kind of a Brecht for cinema. He's regarded as the father of Modernist cinema for those reasons. His films directed with simplicity and direct mise-en-scene showed the meaning of cinema as a medium that captured exterior images at it's height and his films are didactic and parable-like in the way Brecht was.

Brecht was another one of those atheist Marxists whose favourite book was the Bible...and they got from the Bible especially the parables of Jesus' a direct kind of didactic simplicity that made people think and confront reality headfirst by reminding them of the world outside or in the case of NeoRealism trying to make the audience ''Love Thy Neighbour''.