Third in our Series of St. Francis Films
Director: Liliana Cavani. Year: 1989. Rating: R. Length: 119 min.
According to a reviewer on Imdb the DVD version of Italian director Liliana Cavani’s film has been cut at least 30 minutes down to 119 minutes. Despite this chopping and re-assemblage (even of the soundtrack by Vangelis!), the film provides us with a glimpse of the darker side of the life of the saint. Mickey Rourke seems like an unlikely choice to play Francis of Assisi, his physical frame being so much larger than the real diminutive saint. But his performance in the role of the single-minded son of a wealthy merchant who renounces all for the sake of serving Christ and the poor is very moving. Helena Bonham Carter also might not seem the appropriate actress to play Clare, especially when they costume her in more of a monk’s habit than that of a sister’s. And the way that the film is put together is sometimes confusing, which, given that the DVD version is truncated, could be more the fault of the studio than of the director and her editor.
Director Liliana Cavani’s version does suffer in comparison to Franco Zefirelli film (the latter’s exquisite photography and costumes, the soul-lifting music of Donovan, and a more lilting, lighter approach to the subject), but it adds a great deal to our understanding of the great saint and the tremendous risks he took in staying with his dream of Christ-like simplicity against all opposition, beginning with that of his father. The muted photography presents a more realistic picture of the times, and especially of the ugliness of war and poverty—one early scene of the burial of dozens of naked bodies reminding me of the horrific images from the Holocaust. Throughout the film, instead of the sunny blue skies and flower-strewn fields of Zeferelli’s Italy, the director shows us more of its rain and mud. Whatever happened to “sunny Italy”?
Told in flashbacks after the saint’s death, when a group of friars are joined by Chiara (as Clare is called here), we follow the development of the playful Francesco who at first is repelled by a leper who interrupts his chasing after a maiden. This is quickly followed by his going to war and subsequent long imprisonment. He and his fellow prisoners bury naked bodies in a mass grave and are forced to watch a priest rail against heretics before the bloody body of one that is hung upside down. As he listens to the un-Christ-like words of the cleric, he finds and hides the victim’s small copy of one of the gospels. It is the reading of this, plus a later meeting with Chiara, whom he sees giving a coin to the beggar whom both he and his father had refused, that awakens his conscience and concern for the poor. There follows the conflict with and rejection of his father, his rebuilding San Damiano, the attraction of followers, and the eventual acceptance of the order by Pope Innocent III.
Unlike the earlier film, this one does not stop at the little saint’s success with Pope Innocent III’s acceptance of his Rule. It goes on to show that Francesco had to stand not only against the misunderstanding and scorn of his own family and townspeople, but also against powerful voices within his own order clamoring for a less strict rule that would not require their giving up so much of the world. In one scene the pope’s emissary arrives to find Francesco and a brother ripping off the tiles of the roof of a house they have been given and throwing them to the ground. A fellow monk pleads with Francesco to understand their need for permanent living quarters. A little later that evening Francesco tells the assembled friars and the papal emissary that he does not judge those above them but that they have chosen a lower way of life. Eventually he gives up the active leadership of the organization that has grown so tremendously. There is a mention of his journey to the Middle East to convert the sultan, but unfortunately this is not shown. However, his ill health and climactic stigmata are depicted, the filmmaker making no attempt to “explain” this unusual identification of the saint with his divine master.
There is plenty to criticize in this sometimes muddled work, such as a strange scene in which the nude Francesco is rolling in the snow, an incident based on an old tale that he had done so to overcome the sexual temptation offered by the devil to marry and sire a child. In the film version he has covered his crotch with snow and made two pillars, which he tells two approaching brothers are his wife and child—the episode seems more lewd than a means of facing erotic temptation.
There are other such missteps, but you can see them for yourself if you choose to watch what is both an interesting and a very flawed telling of what we might call the Second Greatest Story Ever Told.