Four Films For the Feast Day of St. Francis
Francis of Assisi, whose Feast Day is October 4, might be considered an ecumenical saint. Protestants share with Roman Catholics a great love for and interest in the little friend of the poor. And with the rise of the environmental movement, additional non-religious folk have joined his circle of admirers because of his love for the physical world, evidenced in such works attributed to him as “The Canticle of the Sun.” Here is a series of four feature films that you can watch in honor of the man. I am publishing them as separate reviews so that the Imdb information will be available, so we begin with my favorite, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Director: Franco Zefirelli. Year: 1972. Rating: PG. Length: 121 min.
Italian Filmmaker Franco Zefirelli takes us from Francesco’s early days as Giovanni Francesco Bernardone (1181-1226), son of a wealthy cloth merchant, through his audience with Pope Innocent III, thus omitting the darker days when he was pushed aside by the rebellious members of his order who rejected his extreme affirmation of “Lady Poverty.” The title, taken from Francesco’s “Canticle of the Sun” (also known as “Praise of the Creatures”), reflects the great love he had for all of nature, and of animals in particular.
Zefirelli, whose lush Romeo and Juliet was such a commercial success, in his new film obviously was targeting the Hippie movement that arose in the Sixties, but the “Flower Power” movement was already passé by 1972 due to such violent events as the Manson Family murders and the riot at the Altamont Rock Concert in 1969. By the time of the film’s release the strident anti-Vietnam War campaign was replacing even the pacifist civil rights as the dominant movement. The film’s sparse dialogue and dreamy-eyed depiction of Francesco turned off the critics, most of whom panned the film, even my favorite critic Roger Ebert condemning it.
I suppose when I saw the film it was good that I was ignorant of the critical reaction, because I fell in love with the film. The sincere youthful actors, the lush scenery of the Umbrian hills, the lilting music of folk singer Donovan–all of these contributed to my warm experience, but even at a deeper level, I felt a rare mystical experience that was more powerful even than when I visited Assisi and the little church of San Damiano just outside its walls. Seeing the tattered robe and sandals of the saint 20 years after experiencing the film was inspiring, but not as much as viewing this admittedly flawed movie.
The first act of the film shows Francesco enjoying the prerogatives of youth and wealth, his main ambition being to become a knight. Thanks to his father’s wealth he can afford the necessary armor, so it’s off to war, but he finds no glory in it. Struck down by a fever, he returns home where, confined to his bed, he has disturbing visions of his past. He recovers, but resists his father’s efforts to engage him in the family business. His parents worry about his solitary roaming the meadows and hills around the town, seemingly lost in contemplating nature. At one point when he throws bolts of cloth out the window, his angry father beats him. Like the 1960s’ “generation gap,” father and son become enemies, culminating in the scene before the bishop with Francesco’s stripping off and returning his clothes to his father and renouncing his inheritance. He walks out of the city, clad only in the robe that the horrified bishop had thrown over him to cover his nakedness.
At San Damiano, the ruined church just outside the city walls, Francesco hears the voice of Christ through the wall crucifix telling him to repair “my church.” He sets out to do just that, at first by himself, and then joined by some of his friends, some of whom had come to scoff but were affected by Francesco’s joyful demeanor. This scene is wonderfully expressed in the haunting song by Donovan that accompanies it, “The Little Church,” the title referring to the church Francesco and a few volunteers are rebuilding with donated stones. The opening lines are repeated many times—“If you want your dream to be/Take your time, go slowly”—as we see the stones laid atop one another. Although I love the film’s title song “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” which was released as a single, I enjoy this (unreleased) song even more, perhaps because of the visuals of men working together toward a common goal. The ruined chapel is restored, but only as the friar encounters the cold, wealth-obsessed church hierarchy does he understand that Christ means for him to “repair” (Protestants would say “reform”) the larger, or Mother Church, itself.
Other events include the young noble woman Clare joining the movement, thus becoming the founder of the Sisters of St. Clare. There is a meaningful juxtaposition of scenes from a simple joyous service in the little church attended by the poor, the lame, the excluded and a solemn mass at the cathedral where the congregation is almost entirely made up of the wealthy in all their finery, but containing none of the joy of the former. It does not take great theological astuteness to realize at which service Christ is most fully present and accepted. The elite of Assisi worry that their youth are being corrupted by the little friar, so they set in motion a chain of events that end in a fire at San Damiano in which one of the followers of Francesco dies. This fictitious but helpful scene finds the disturbed Francis mournfully questioning his vocation, his words portending those, who 800 years later, would question the Birmingham church bombing in which the four innocent little girls died. “Why? Why? Who could have such hatred? For such a creature? What did I do wrong? I must know. I must—understand.”
Desiring to have his little group legitimized, Francesco and his close followers set off for Rome where they are unimpressed by its ostentatious display of wealth and pomp. In the presence of the richly clad papal court the ragged band of friars make quite a contrast. Laying aside an obsequious plea prepared for him that is designed to impress the pontiff, Francesco, quoting the Scriptures, preaches against the obsession with wealth of Rome. They are brusquely hustled out, but then Pope Innocent, masterfully played by Alec Guinness, calls him back to grant his request for a charter. He even kisses the dirty feet of his visitor, much to the consternation of the cardinals. However, one of them cynically says, “Don’t be alarmed, his holiness knows what he is doing. This is the man who will speak to the poor, and bring them back to us.” And so he did.
Much of the criticism by sophisticated critics is deserved, contributing to the film’s failure at the box office. Fortunately the film has found an audience, thanks to videotape and now DVD and streaming video. Not all critics were turned off by the film, the Franciscans John Felice and Roy M. Gasnick writing an insightful, enthusiastic review of the film. I love their memorable observation that the film offers a flesh and blood Francis: “Zefirelli has gotten Saint Francis out of the birdbath, hopefully, once and for all.” Well, maybe not “once and for all,” as garden shops still sell birdbaths with the saint standing atop them, his arms outstretched in a blessing, but the film certainly brings us in touch with the spirit of one of the most beloved human beings ever to walk the earth.
For further enrichment:
1. All the lyrics of Donovan’s gentle soundtrack songs can be found at:
Reading all of these lyrics recently for the first time gave me a better understanding of their meaning and of how much of the spirit of St. Francis Donovan has captured in his songs.
2. The Francis Book: 800 Years With the Saint From Assisi. This fascinating collection of written and visual materials celebrating his 800th birthday is an absolute “must” for the admirer of the saint. Quoting from the good book review listing a few of the book’s contributors (posted on Amazon.com where you can choose to buy from over 130 used copies), “Guides on the journey include novelists: Nikos Kazantzakis, Albert Camus; essayists: G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde; poets: William Wordsworth, Vachel Lindsay; songwriters: Donovan, Arlo Guthrie; historians: Arnold Toynbee, Sir Kenneth Clark; theologians: Thomas Merton; multiple journalists and Francis’ own contemporaries.” The illustrations include stills from the movie, and even several panels and a full-page illustration from the Marvel Comics’ Francis—Brother of the Universe. And many, many more, we might add.
The remaining three films–The Flowers of Saint Francis, Francesco, and Saint Francis of Assisi– follow in separate reviews.