Judge Joe Armenio will go to the monastery if he can take his DVD player.
"God chose the foolish things of this world to humiliate the learned,
the weak to humiliate the strong."
"The world of Rossellini is a world of pure acts, unimportant in
themselves but preparing the way (as if unbeknownst to God himself) for the
sudden dazzling revelation of their meaning."
Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977) made The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) at an unusually turbulent time in his life. He was being was attacked by former supporters for abandoning the leftist politics which they felt lay at the heart of the neorealist movement, in favor of more personal, existential cinema; more tritely but no less painfully, he was reviled as immoral and a seducer for his affair with Ingrid Bergman, which began when both were married to other people and produced a child out of wedlock. In the next few years, Rossellini would make Europa '51 and Voyage in Italy, films shot through with personal and religious torment. The Flowers of St. Francis, an aggressively non-dramatic portrait of the medieval holy man, is, in a sense, the eye of Rossellini's early-fifties storm; its placidity feels more like a desperate wish for peace than a calm assertion. In this sense, the film is both personal and political, a cri de coeur from the atheist Rossellini to a broken Europe, a plea to reject the war and death that civilization had brought in favor of simplicity and love.
Facts of the Case
The Italian title of the film is Francesco, giullare di Dio, or Francis, God's Jester, and it is based on anecdotes from two medieval texts, The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Life of Father Ginepro (one of Francis' followers). Rossellini's treatment of this material is at once medieval and resolutely neorealist, in that he (and co-screenwriter Federico Fellini) refuses to shape this material into a narrative, or burden Francis with psychological or political motivation, or use actors to portray the main characters (they are played by Franciscan monks Rossellini had met while filming Paisan in 1946). Rather, we see a series of anecdotes which illustrates the world view of Francis and his men: Father Ginepro's search for a pig's foot to make soup; his scary encounter with the world, in the person of tyrant Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi), and Francis' encounter with a leper.
For Rossellini's Francis, the path to holiness lay through a rejection of all individual self-regard (ego, as we would call it post-Freud) and worldly sophistication, and a childlike love of all God's creation. The film focuses as much on Father Ginepro (played by Brother Severino Pisacane) and his friend Giovanni (Esposito Bonaventura) as Francis (Brother Nazario Gerardi), perhaps because Francis is marginally more sophisticated, the theoretician of the group, whereas the others embody an almost brutally honest simplicity. The friars' engagement with God is always seen as a rejection of self, of "reason," an embrace of childlike pleasures, an uncompromising love for all of God's creatures (most movingly portrayed here in a scene in which Francis embraces a leper). At times, their foolishness is mined for humor, as in Father Ginepro's doomed scheme to cook all of their food at once so that they could have more time to preach, but the tone is always affectionate rather than mocking. A recurring theme is the idea of play, established in the opening scene, in which the friars frolic in the rain; later, we see Ginepro join some children at their playground, and find joy in the act of rolling a cooking pot downhill.
The Flowers of St. Francis was received badly upon its first release; the leftist critics who loved the openly rebellious politics of his films Open City (1945) and Paisan saw Flowers as a betrayal of the cause, a rejection of politics in favor of an irrelevant navel-gazing existentialism. The great French critic Andre Bazin argued (correctly, I think) with this critique, saying that neorealism was essentially a matter of form rather than content, that it was "a description of reality conceived as a whole by a consciousness disposed to see things as a whole…neorealism by definition rejects analysis, whether political, moral, psychological, logical, or social, of the characters and their actions." In other words, neorealism rejects every convention of theatricality in favor of presenting "a world of pure acts."
Seen from this perspective, The Flowers of St. Francis is the ultimate neorealist film. It resists conventional criticism, since most of its "flaws" are there by conscious design: the anecdotes never cohere into a narrative, the acting is non-virtuosic, the cinematography and mise-en-scene deliberately flat and unemphatic. Viewers' reactions to the film will be largely determined by how willing they are to accept Rossellini's militant sensibility. At times, I found myself longing for a hint of traditional dramatic tension, or least a critical examination of its own premises; the film doesn't reflect Rossellini's spiritual torment as much as subsequent works, and at times feels oppressively holy, a bit too in love with its own principles. The most expansive of the anecdotes, the one which details Father Ginepro's encounter with Nicolaio, contains a violation of Bazinian neorealism in Fabrizi's over-the-top performance. Nicolaio is played for laughs, as a haplessly scowling, self-important idiot, burdened by a ridiculously elaborate suit of armor. In his booklet essay, Peter Brunette suggests that Fabrizi's scenery-chewing was meant as an illustration of the inherent corruptness of the "sophisticated" world, as opposed to Ginepro's neorealist simplicity. That's as good an explanation as any, but the scene still doesn't work; it's jarring, painfully hammy, and not very funny.
Criterion's DVD release characteristically is terrific; the transfer is sharp and the evidence of print damage minimal. The original mono sound is clear. This is one of Criterion's lower-priced single-disc releases, and does not contain an extraordinary amount of extras, but what's here is intelligent and enlightening. There is an interview with Isabella Rossellini, the director's daughter, who approaches the film not from a personal standpoint, but as an articulate and well-informed critic. She discusses the ways in which this film, with its combination of concreteness and ethereality, was the perfect fit between her father's sensibility and Fellini's more "oneiric" concerns. She also tells some interesting stories about Rossellini's relationship with the friars who acted in the film; he insisted on paying them for their efforts, and the friars used the money to buy fireworks. Film historian Adriano Apra, in his interview, places the film in the context of neorealism's history and Rossellini's personal troubles, and gives an eloquent appreciation of the character of Ginepro, the embodiment of Franciscan simplicity and wonder. Film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi discusses his own conversations with Rossellini about religion, which throw into relief the tension between the calm assertions of belief in Flowers and Rossellini's own atheism; "Father," he told Fantuzzi, "I don't believe in anything."
Also included is a six-minute sequence which originally began the film, in which a narrator provides historical background on St. Francis against a background of Giotto frescoes; this prologue was apparently removed just before the film's general release, and then added again when it was shown in the United States in 1952. The prologue is interesting mainly because it highlights explicitly the parallels between the torn and broken world of the 13th century and Europe's post-World War II situation, a theme which remains implicit in the rest of the film. Finally, the DVD comes with a 32-page booklet which includes an essay, "God's Jester," by critic Peter Brunette; "The Message of The Flowers of St. Francis," an essay which Rossellini wrote at the time of the film's premiere; an interview of Rossellini by Victoria Schultz, in which he discusses his relationship with the Franciscans, and "In Defense of Rossellini," the essay by Andre Bazin which I've quoted in this review. The booklet is a model of intelligent presentation, and it's the kind of thing I wish DVD publishers would do more often (do they think that people who watch DVDs can't read?).
Rossellini is a critical figure in the history of film because of his uncompromising dedication to what Bazin would call the "ontology" of neorealism, his desire "to get at the totality in its simplicity." Unfortunately, he's been extraordinarily poorly served by DVD: where's Paisan, for example? Or Stromboli? Or Europa '51? Or Voyage In Italy? The Flowers of St. Francis isn't his best film, but it's perhaps the most extreme and abstract representation of his ideas, and Criterion has done typically excellent work in making it available.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Interviews with Actress Isabella Rossellini, Film Historian Adriano Apra, and Film Critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi
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