Tuesday, February 19, 2008

GOD'S JESTER. Roberto Rossellini's 1950 film THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS is such a treat. Each scene is indeed like a little flower (indeed since the movie is partly based on the medieval text "The Little Flowers of St. Francis" which presents different vignettes in his life) or the scenes could more pedantically be called little gems. The simplicity of St. Francis' life and ministry is echoed in the extremely simple way Rossellini filmed the movie; no fancy edits or montages -- everything is generally shot straight-forwardly at eye level. Rossellini's neorealist past can be seen in the way the film is shot; however there is also a strange "dream-like" quality at the same time (possibly because Federico Fellini helped with his mentor's screenplay). The real joy of the film is its overwhelming innocence; what Peter Brunette calls "a film that is self-consciously, almost militantly, naive". The film is populated almost exclusively with non-actors; only one "real" actor Aldo Fabrizi has a part as Nicolaio the Tyrant -- and the guy truly looks like a living muppet! All the parts of the monks are played by actual Franciscan monks. Brother Nazario Gerardi is perfect as Saint Francis himself and the same can be said for Brother Severino Pisacane as the inept Brother Ginepro and local hobo Esposito Bonaventura (aka "Peparuolo" which translates as having a red nose from excessive drinking) as the truly imbecilic but lovable Brother Giovanni.
The film opens after Pope Innocent has given Francis permission to start his ministry. Francis and his followers have all taken a vow of extreme poverty and basically exist to roam the countryside doing good. Each scene or tableau is remarkable, touching and downright funny; not in a self-conscious, artfully comedic way but genuinely, deep-down funny. I found myself grinning through most of the film. It was obviously Rossellini's intent to focus on the joy and humour of Saint Francis' life and dispense completely with the Cecil B. DeMille-type holier-than-thou glowing icon religiousity that could've made this one heavy, leaden movie. In fact, that's the most remarkable thing about this movie: the scene with St. Francis and the leper is really the only one which is completely serious -- all the rest of the movie displays a comfortable humour which is SO refreshing and easy to watch. In one scene, Brother Ginepro returns naked because he gave his robes to a poor person. When Ginepro explains that Francis instructed them to give away all they had to the poor, Francis gently admonishes him and orders him not to give away his robe anymore. Of course, later in the film Ginepro returns naked once again -- he explains that he hasn't disobeyed Francis at all. Ginepro told the beggar that he was forbidden by his master from giving away his robe -- but if the beggar was to take it off his back he wouldn't resist. This is the way Francis' followers behave: essentially like children. Francis is frequently seen shaking his head and smiling at his followers' naivete. At one point, a sick brother is fasting but asks for a pig's foot to eat. Ginepro immediately goes out, finds some pigs, bargains with one of them and proceeds to cut off the still-living pig's foot.
Probably one of the most famous scenes occurs when Francis, alone at night in prayer, sees a leper. Francis' overwhelming compassion is illustrated when he repeatedly touches and finally embraces the leper. At first the leper resists (he is even forced to wear a bell so people will hear him and keep away) but he finally allows himself to be embraced and actually embraces back for a moment. A truly powerful and emotional scene. In another famous scene, Ginepro is told to stay behind and cook a meal while all the others go out to preach. Disappointed, Ginepro (and the simple-minded Giovanni) decide to cook ALL the food they've got in one big pot -- two weeks worth of food -- so that it will all be cooked and he will be able to go out and preach. While Ginepro is throwing everything into the pot -- greens, hens -- and throwing more wood on the fire -- Giovanni proceeds to throw wood INTO THE POT. Upon his return, Ginepro proudly announces what he's done. Francis again covers his eyes, shakes his head in gentle amusement and tells Ginepro he can go out and preach. However, Francis commands that before he begins preaching Ginepro must say "Bo Bo Bo, I talk a lot but accomplish little" since preaching by example is more effective than by words.
Here follows a truly remarkable scene when Ginepro heads out to an invading army camp of barbarians. He begins with his "Bo Bo Bo" speech but the barbarians grab him up and throw the monk around like a ball; even using the monk's body as a jump rope. Ginepro, the good Franciscan that he is, doesn't resist but allows them to beat him to a pulp. On the verge of being executed, a priest appeals to the barbarian leader Nicolaio to spare Ginepro's life. The chieftain (appearing in a ridiculously large suit of armour) takes the little monk into his tent and repeatedly threatens him with bodily harm. Ginepro only smiles lovingly. Nicolaio pushes fists in Ginepro's face and yanks his hair out; still the monk just smiles and offers no resistance. The barbarian chief even puts his thumbs over Ginepro's eyes as if he's about to gouge them out. Still no resistance. Ginepro's constant smile breaks the barbarian; he orders the camp to be struck and they end the siege. Pisacane as Ginepro really shines in this sequence.
It's probably impossible to pick one favourite scene: the leper scene, Ginepro's cooking pot and encounter with the barbarians are all strong contenders. However, I keep coming back to the final scene in the film when Francis informs the monks that they must split up and preach throughout the world. When they ask where they should go, the monks are told by Francis to spin around in place like children at play until they get dizzy. Whichever direction they are facing when they fall, that is where they should go. The monks all spin around and fall. A rare occurence of music occurs (by Renzo Rossellini) as the monks fall to the ground. However, old simpleton Giovanni is still standing . . . and still spinning. "Aren't you dizzy yet?" asks Francis. "No" says Giovanni and keeps spinning. After a few more moments, Francis asks again "Still not dizzy?" "No" says the old man. Francis covers his eyes and smiles with loving bemusement. "Oh, now I'm dizzy" Giovanni finally sighs and is helped to the ground. Francis then asks each monk in turn where he is facing -- "And you?" "And you?" There is something strangely powerful in this scene; like we the viewers are present at a momentous beginning -- which in fact we are. "And you, Giovanni, where were you facing?" Francis asks finally. The old man replies "I was facing that sparrow hopping in those trees over there." The monks all laugh -- as does Francis -- but Francis tells Giovanni that God has obviously intended for Giovanni to follow that bird to do his will. The monks all say their final farewells and start off in all directions. And this is where the film ends.
I've always had a very soft spot for St. Francis -- mainly because of what he tells Ginepro in this very movie -- and what, I think, Rossellini is trying to point out -- that preaching with words is not the thing to do -- it's actions and behaviour that matters. Think of Mother Teresa who, despite all her struggles and doubts about her faith, put her money where he mouth was and spent an entire lifetime helping the poor. Who really wants someone telling you how to live. It's much more effective when they are an example of how to live in their daily life. St. Francis was a rich, spoiled guy who gave away everything he had and devoted his life to poverty and helping others. He was following that little thing called the golden rule. It seems to me that if we stopped trying to force our own personal idea of God and religion down each others throats and merely treated each other like we would ourselves wish to be treated, we would be a hell of a lot better off. THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS gives a glimpse of what that would be like. Rossellini's movie deals with faith, sure -- but I would not call it a religious movie -- that is, a movie about religion. It instead shows a group of people who devote their lives completely to helping others and just simply being nice and compassionate. Perhaps in that sense you could call this a science fiction movie since there is very little likelihood of that happening anytime soon.

1 comment:

Cerpts said...

And ohhhhhh boy, after finally seeing Rossellini's FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS I am now really most sincerely desperate to see EUROPA '51: his next picture which tells essentially the same story -- a person becoming a saint -- only this time the person is Ingrid Bergman and the time is present day 1951!