The Flowers of St. Francis

Dir: Roberto Rossellini, 1950. Starring: Aldo Fabrizi, Gianfranco Bellini, Peparuolo. Foreign.
The Flowers of St. Francis
Most films with religion as a central theme – specifically Christianity – are just awful. Even films with something original and authentic to say about religion can be overly pious, pedantic, and dull. But for every film on the subject that is too obvious or cowardly there are always films that manage to examine religion or use religion as a theme that are widely acknowledged works of art—Carl Dreyer’s emotionally pornographic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Michael Powell’s lurid fantasia of desire and self-denial, Black Narcissus, and Tim Robbins’s affecting denouncement of the death penalty, Dead Man Walking, are all good examples. But for every one of those there are quite a few stinkers. I think that unless a film challenges the assumptions of organized religion or audience biases then it’s not a subject worth going near.

The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini’s film about St. Francis of Assisi and his followers, is the rare film about Christianity that manages to say something new about the religion itself. Well, not new per se as it pretty much embodies the radical spirit of the teachings of Jesus, but new in the sense that it’s not a depiction of Christianity that people are used to seeing. Rather than rely on a straight biographical narrative to tell the story of St. Francis, Rossellini tells his story in several vignettes that each embody his intense joie de vivre for animals and nature, for his brothers of the cloth, and for God. There is something downright goofy about these men joyously preaching the gospels in their tattered cloaks so happy to be poor. Somehow it’s poignant and charming instead of ludicrous.

Still, I wonder how many so-called “Christians” would even recognize the basic tenets of the religion so beautifully embodied in the individual scenes of the film. This is a film about men who are excited to be poor, who seem delighted by their own misfortune as it reinforces their understanding of God’s plan for them. Suffice to say they are about as far removed from the Christianity practiced by most people today as they could possibly be.

Rossellini understood that the best way to depict the spirtuality and faith of Francis and his band of merry men was to essentially make a neo-realist film about them. He used non-actors and the film's cinematography is notable for its austere simplicity that works beautifully for these little stories. The Flowers of St. Francis may not be as famous a film as The Passion of the Christ or the religious epics of the 1950s but it's probably a much better film than any of them for understanding the ecstatic strangeness of the faith as authentically lived by these funny little men.
Posted by:
Jed Leland
Oct 12, 2011 6:30pm
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