Judge Bill Treadway wishes that Father Universe and Mother Earth would pick up their damn kids already!
"You have to hang your brains outside by the door before you go into this film."—Franco Zeffirelli
"It looks like he started with himself."—Roger Ebert
Oh, what a frustrating film Brother Sun, Sister Moon is. Not since Solomon and Sheba has a religious film left me so confused and baffled as Franco Zeffirelli's take on Francis of Assisi. Rather than providing a serious examination of one of our holiest saints, it seems to me that Zeffirelli decided to make this film resemble his great success Romeo and Juliet at every opportunity.
Perhaps it is just me. Having read an intelligent study about the saint (God's Fool, by the late Julian Green), I find it difficult to accept the passionately dopey Francis the film showcases. The film centers around the early days of the saint, then known as Francesco (Graham Faulkner). If you're expecting a factual, intelligent biopic about Francis of Assisi, you should walk away right now. Francesco was accustomed to a rich life, but through a series of spiritual revelations he decides to renounce his ways and devote himself to the Lord. He faces opposition, but eventually he overcomes it.
Before you go e-mailing me, I know the above synopsis sounds rather thin, not to mention hackneyed. The reason it seems that way is the simple fact that the screenplay is a glorious mess. I've seen this film several times, and I still do not know what it is all about. Roger Corman was infamous for tearing out a page of the screenplay if he fell behind. Brother Sun, Sister Moon feels even more disorganized. If Corman tore out a page or two per picture, how many did Zeffirelli tear? Luckily for the audience, original songs written and performed simply by troubadour Donovan ("Mellow Yellow") help fill the gaps left by the script. Nevertheless, Brother Sun, Sister Moon alternates between the effective and the ludicrous. For every serious scene showing Francesco's path away from the secular life, we get a ridiculous set piece such as the swordfight, bodily lifted from Romeo and Juliet. The dialogue is utterly ridiculous. Granted, no one really knows how Francis of Assisi really talked, but this film doesn't even try to be realistic.
Can the film be taken solely as experience? I fear that's the only level on which Brother Sun, Sister Moon works. Ennio Guarineri's cinematography is beautiful (even with the lousy video transfer). The Oscar-nominated art direction is tops of its kind. The acting, however, is what makes the film worth seeing. Given the often sappy material he has to work with, Graham Faulkner makes a fine Francesco. I give him credit for at least trying to make this material work. One can imagine a star just laughing this material off and collecting the paycheck, but Faulkner invests Francis with so much humanity and feeling—more than the script deserves. He makes this man convincing and real, despite the film's rampant confusion and stupidity. Despite his star billing, Alec Guinness in his role as Pope Innocent amounts to a celebrated cameo. Luckily for us, Guinness always gave a strong effort in even the tiniest throwaway role, and he is no different here. Watch the scenes he shares with Faulkner toward the end. It is these basic ingredients that make the film work somewhat.
Paramount provides the disc with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Considering the solid work Paramount has been doing of late, they really shafted Brother Sun, Sister Moon. The image is very soft, sometimes so much that the objects become a blur. Zeffirelli shot his film in soft focus, which often requires extra work in the mastering. Grain and assorted defects dominate to the point of distraction. While it does look slightly better than the muddy VHS prints, this disc could be so much better.
The audio is much better. On VHS, the audio was always poorly mixed. Dialogue and music often overlapped, causing one giant muddle. The DVD offers a mono mix but actually improves on the earlier mix. You can comprehend the dialogue without struggling to hear it. (Then again, considering the banal quality of the dialogue, I'm not sure this is good news.) Best of all, Donovan's beautiful music is restored to its original clarity.
Not a single extra has been included, which is a shame. I would have liked to hear Zeffirelli's thoughts on a film he feels is unjustly maligned.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon is available as part of Paramount's budget line of discs. Even though it sells for under $14.95 in most stores, I am still unsure if this is worth purchasing. Serious religious followers will question Zeffirelli's take on Francis. Casual filmgoers will either be bored to death or laugh at the breezy, light tone of the film. Brother Sun, Sister Moon may be a frustrating experience, but it's worth a look at least once as a rental.
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