Written by Jess Wilton

Italy, 1950. 75 min. Rizzoli Film and Cineriz.
Cast: Brother Nazario Gerardi, Arabella Lemaitre, Aldo Fabrizi; Music: Enrico Buondonno, Renzo Rossellini; Cinematography: Otello Martelli; Produced by: Giuseppe Amato; Written by: Roberto Rossellini, Frederico Fellini, Father Antonio Lisandrini, Father Felix Morlion; Directed by: Roberto Rossellini

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) initially doesn’t seem to fit in with Rossellini’s best-known films. Set in the Italian countryside of the thirteenth century, it details the exploits of a dozen or so medieval monks rather than a handful of war-weary contemporary Europeans, and at first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much at stake, or much direction to the narrative. St. Francis himself doesn’t even eat up much screen time, nor does he drive the relaxed, whimsical stories adapted by Rossellini and Frederico Fellini from “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” a collection of stories written in the 14th century about the jocular saint and his followers. All in all, it’s a far cry from films like Rome, Open City, that deal with the problems of post-WWII Italy.

The Flowers of St Francis premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1950, where the initial response was generally dismissive—perhaps as a result of the absence of context for such a film from Rossellini. The monks seemed too silly, and the line between simple and simple-minded was too fuzzy. Upon its American release in 1952, critics here described the film, somewhat dismissively, as slight, benign, plotless, and heartwarming

True, the tranquil, lighthearted tone of the film certainly colors its first impression on an audience. But beneath the atmosphere of serenity lies a comic absurdity that demystifies the life of the saint. Perhaps the most memorable image from the film, because it is so recurrent, is that of monks hitching up their robes and scampering barefoot over the Umbrian countryside in small packs. This might simply be the effect of rocky terrain on bare feet, but it looks—well, silly. And then there’s Brother Juniper. Although Rossellini’s title literally translates as “Francis, God’s Jester,” the Saint is most often seen shaking his head pitifully at this diminutive Brother’s antics—in fact, Francis himself is a serious sort, most often seen as a slightly bemused paternal figure to his brood of bumbling followers. It’s Juniper who’s the clown. For instance, the Brother has an unfortunate habit of giving away his tunic every time he goes to town, convinced that a poor villager needs his clothes more than he does, and returning to camp wearing only his little canvas under-knickers, disturbing the spiritual solemnity of the Saint.

Rossellini effectively deconstructs the iconography of the saint, and his approach raised some eyebrows. The film’s comedy is based on the tension between the expected solemnity of a religious film and Rossellini’s interpretation of everyday life among the first Franciscan Brothers. The critics at the Venice Premiere were first to doubt that the general public was ready for this sort of frank, unassuming portrayal of a religious icon. Later, when Rossellini presented the film to the Catholic contingent, more than a few monks disapproved. Even the Pope was concerned.

Much of Catholic Italy may have seen this approach as inappropriately irreverent, but it fits nicely with Rossellini’s post-war agenda. After all, the purpose if the Italian neorealist movement was to make films that mirrored the human experience, without romanticizing it. Shot in natural light, and using mostly non-actors, the seemingly casual Italian neorealist films were no cultural accident. After the horrors of World War II, ideas about the harmful and deceptive effects of mass culture gained popularity. Propaganda had played a key role in allaying the concerns of the general public on both sides. That the German and Italian people were swayed by state-controlled entertainment lent credence to the idea that mass culture, while it may be no more than an oozing blob of mindless entertainment, can have deadly consequences. Rossellini’s films are, therefore, pointedly neutral. Even St. Francis should not be revered unless we, the audience, deem him worthy, and, for the filmmaker to influence the audience in any direction would be a violation of neorealist aesthetics. Here Rossellini’s statement seems not only to apply to religious leaders, but also (and especially) to political leaders, who only recently had attempted to claim the same sort of unquestioning loyalty from their people that the Catholic Church had maintained for centuries.

Beneath its obvious comedic overtones, The Flowers of St. Francis offers another type of tension. Reminders of the violence, poverty, and disease surrounding the monks’ bucolic hideaway creep in frequently. St. Francis’ encounter with a leper is an uncomfortable exchange where one might expect a scene of saintly redemption. The leper, phased by the overtures of this robed lunatic, tries to shake him off a few times, and finally accepts two kisses and a hug from St. Francis, before moving on, bewildered. Or Juniper, wanting only to preach to the barbarians is literally tossed around and nearly killed by a barbarian horde.

These intrusions, of violence, disease, and comedy align The Flowers of St. Francis with Rossellini’s other films. If we accept Slavoj Zizek’s notion that epiphanies in Rossellini’s work are nearly always brought on through an “encounter with the real,” like a frightening natural disaster or the senseless death of a loved one, then this film can be seen as a series of these encounters and epiphanies: in the midst of a discussion of perfect happiness, Francis and another monk stumble upon a murder scene; hoping to cheer up a sick Brother, Juniper cuts the foot off of a live pig as it squeals in pain; and finally, as Francis sends his disciples off to preach, he tells them to spin, until they are too dizzy to stand, and to go in whatever direction they fall. But old Giovanni can’t get dizzy—he can’t spin fast enough. Whether comic, horrific, or somewhere in-between, these juxtapositions are central to the film’s tension. They remind us that just outside the everyday, just over the next hill, lurk reminders that the world is a frightening, arbitrary, ridiculous place—hardly the message of a reverent Catholic.

Perhaps this film, then, is not the anomaly it first seems to be. Not only does it touch on the same themes and tensions of Rossellini’s other work, but it also can be seen as a comment on the director’s approach to filmmaking. St. Francis roams the countryside with a well-meaning but bumbling group of friends, preaching unconventional ideas. He doesn’t rush things, or belabor his points. He looks everywhere for inspiration, and lets the world around him do the talking. If either man, Rossellini or Francis, had been a little more self-serving, then we might be able to draw a closer comparison. At the very least, however, we might imagine that Rossellini’s devotion to cinema was akin to St. Francis’s devotion to peace and love.

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