Rated. Running time: 1 hour. Our star rating (1-5): 5
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Mark December 26 on your calendar for the PBS airing of writer/director Alex Kronemer’s documentary about a little-known event during the Fifth Crusade in 1219. Jeremy Irons narrates the film, and other actors dramatize the meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Al-Kamil, with numerous historians filling us in about the times and many facts about the Muslim faith. This is a film that peacemakers will want to see and use (it is now available on DVD) in combating the widespread ill will against Muslims.
The film provides a brief recap of the background of Francis, beginning with his transformative meeting with lepers and his preaching to the poor. When Pope Innocent and his preachers fanned the flames of a crusade to retake Jerusalem from “the infidels,” Francis was not caught up in the religious frenzy and the hatred that accompanied it. Instead, with his faithful follower Brother Illuminato, he set sail for Egypt where the Crusaders, led by the arrogant Cardinal Pelagius (Eric Kramer) were laying siege to Damietta, Egypt, a strategic fortress city at the mouth of the Nile.
One of the scholars whose comments are interspersed throughout the film is Catholic scholar Kathleen Warren, who says, “Francis tells us that he clearly heard God asking him to be a peacemaker in this world, a peacemaker in the manner of Jesus Christ. Francis realized that the message he was given to promote peace in the world necessitated him going to the Muslims.”
The ruler of Egypt Sultan Al-Kamil had been well educated and raised in a spirit of tolerance. When his soldiers brought Francis and his companion to his tent, he reacted very differently from Cardinal Pelagius and the other Crusaders who laughed with scorn at what they regarded as a foolish mission. Francis’ intention was to preach the love of Christ, thus winning the hearts of those considered to be enemies. Prof. Warren continues, “I think that Francis must have been surprised at what he experienced among the Muslim people because the popular notion was that Muslims were heathens.” Far from being heathens, they were a very devout people. Another scholar, Michael Cusato, Professor of Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University states, “I believe, in watching Muslims pray, men and women, five times daily, that it really struck Francis unexpectedly. I don’t think he was expecting to see this, to know this, but I think it profoundly moved him.”
Francis becomes ill, so he and his fellow friar returned to Italy, their mission failing to stop the warfare. And yet maybe not a total failure, certainly in a spiritual sense, for the scholars in the film believe that both the Sultan and the Saint were profoundly changed by their interchange. In Egypt when Cardinal Pelagius’s Crusaders marched on Cairo after taking the fortress city of Damietta, the Sultan ordered the sluice gates of the Nile opened, thus trapping the invaders in mud and muck and easily defeated. However, instead of massacring the Crusaders, the Sultan ordered thousands of loaves of bread be given to the stricken enemy, and negotiated a peace treaty with them. The film cites as one of its sources Oliver of Paderborn, a Crusade preacher and designer of a siege engine used at Damietta. He wrote, “The sultan was moved by such compassion that for many days he freely fed us as we were dying of hunger. Who can doubt that such kindness, mildness, and mercy proceeded from God?”
In Italy St. Francis added a section to the rule of his order in which his friars were instructed to approach Muslims with respect, living with and serving them, and to preach Christ only when asked. Just before his death, at a time when both God and Christ were depicted as full of wrath and harsh judgments, Francis wrote much about the love and mercy of God, especially in one document evoking numerous names of God similar to the Muslims’ invocation of the 99 Beautiful Names of God.
This is the second documentary about this historic incident, Franciscan Media having produced a 48-minute DVD in 2012 entitled In the Footsteps of FRANCIS and the SULTAN, A Model for Peacemaking. A comparatively low budget affair, its makers used drawings of the characters, maps, and shots of contemporary Egypt, rather than costumed actors*. Thus, this new production is a great improvement production-wise, as well as adding numerous details. One of the latter are remarks by Dr. Emile Bruneau, who is not a historian, but a social and cognitive scientist, who uses charts and animated sketches of the brain to explain how normally mild-mannered people can be swept up by impassioned rhetoric, such as that of the medieval popes and their crusade preachers, so that they are willing to go off and kill strangers whom they have never met. An interesting touch, and very relevant today!
When I heard about Francis revising the rule of his order along more peaceful lines in regard to Muslims, I thought of the magnificent 2010 French film Of Gods and Men, the true story about a group of monks caught up in the violence of the Algerian civil war. They were not Franciscans, but of the Cistercian-Trappist order, but the loving harmony between them and the nearby Muslim villagers is exactly what St. Francis desired. They too simply lived the Gospel lifestyle, letting their many acts of charity be their sermons. This film would make a good follow-up film for your group to see and discuss after the PBS documentary.
The film is produced by Unity Productions, a non-profit interfaith agency that offers several other films designed to help Muslims and people of other faiths understand each other better. You can find further information about UP and their films on their official site at: https://www.sultanandthesaintfilm.com/
The film is scheduled to be aired on PBS at 8 PM (EST) on Dec. 26, but check your local station to be sure.
- I just noticed that Sister Warren appears in both of these films.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the December issue of Visual Parables.