Two and a half years ago, Pope Francis astonished the world by taking the first brand-new papal name in more than a millennium. In the first of many expectation-defying choices, he chose the name of one of the most popular saints of all time, Francis of Assisi.
Much like Pope Francis himself at times — or even like Jesus himself — St. Francis of Assisi has often been made into an avatar or mascot of people’s likes (or dislikes) rather than being recognized as the surprising, vibrant figure he really was.
As GK Chesterton points out on the first page of his excellent little biography of St. Francis, it has long been fashionable to celebrate this saint for anticipating “all that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion; the sense of the spiritual dangers of prosperity and even of propriety … the first hero of humanism … a sort of morning star of the Renaissance.” Had he written a few decades later, Chesterton might have added “the first flower child.”
There’s nothing wrong with this as far as it goes, but it conveniently leaves out everything in St. Francis that challenges the spirit of our own age: his asceticism, his chastity, his dogmatic faith, his evangelical spirit, his emphasis on religious obedience. In much the same way, Pope Francis’ visit to the US has been met in some circles by one-sided appreciation for his environmentalism, his critique of the excesses of capitalism, and his advocacy for the poor, while his opposition to abortion, his defense of traditional marriage and family, and even his words about religious liberty on the White House lawn have been widely ignored.
To downplay those elements of a spiritual leader’s message or practice that are less immediately appealing is both patronizing and narcissistic; it is to say we will learn only the lessons we have already decided are important, which is as much to say we will learn nothing at all.
One of the best-known movies about St. Francis of Assisi, Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972), falls squarely into this trap, essentially depicting Francis in the manner Chesterton describes: as a dewy, sensitive forerunner of the 1960s counterculture.
Zeffirelli’s Francis (Graham Faulkner) finds enlightenment in hallucinatory, trippy visionary sequences (a result of feverish delirium rather than LSD); turns his back on the solemn, imposing mummery of Church ritual, and goes blissfully tiptoeing through the tulips with Saint Clare (Judi Bowker) as if they were the teen-aged lovers of the director’s earlier “Romeo and Juliet,” accompanied by a cloyingly wide-eyed folk soundtrack courtesy of Donovan.
In the climax, Francis earns the stunned obeisance of Alec Guinness’s Pope Innocent III with his thunderous denunciation of the ostentatious wealth and pomp of the Roman Church (as only Zeffirelli could portray it), but Francis never says or does anything to challenge or convert the viewer.
At the other end of the spectrum is Roberto Rossellini’s lovely, transcendent “The Flowers of St. Francis” (1950), an episodic film drawing upon the “Fioretti” or “Little Flowers of St. Francis,” written a century and a half after Francis’ death. Charmingly, Francis and his followers are played by the actual Franciscan friars of the Nocere Inferiore monastery in Rome, in keeping with the practice of Italian neorealism of filming with suitably cast non-professional actors.
“The Flowers of St. Francis” is actually less about Francis himself than about the transformative effect of Francis’ spirituality on his followers, particularly Brother Juniper or Ginapro. According to Rossellini, the film seeks to capture “the merrier aspect of the Franciscan experience, on the playfulness, the ‘perfect delight,’ the freedom that the spirit finds in poverty, and in an absolute detachment from material things.” This spirit of joy and detachment, Rossellini felt, represents “the most accomplished form of the Christian ideal,” and in the “Little Flowers” Rossellini discerned “the perfume of the most primitive Franciscanism.”
What makes “The Flowers of St. Francis” such a satisfying experience is that Rossellini is as interested in the elements of Franciscan spirituality that are challenging to our era — notably insistence on religious obedience and his zeal for evangelization — as those that are more congenial to modern-day sentiment, such as childlike playfulness.
In the climax, all these themes come delightfully together as Francis commands his followers “under holy obedience” to spin around “like children at play” — and then, when they collapse from dizziness, he commands them to strike out in whatever direction they are facing to preach the gospel.
“The Flowers of St. Francis” is one of two Franciscan movies honored on the 1995 Vatican film list. The other, Liliana Cavani’s “Francesco” (1989), has just been re-released on DVD by Film Movement in honor of Pope Francis’ US visit.
Unfortunately, if Rossellini’s film had the most appropriate possible cast in the Nocere Inferiore friars, Cavani’s star, Mickey Rourke, is surely the least appropriate actor ever to play the Poverello. With his brawny build, tattooed arms, and shovel-blade jaw, Rourke makes for a glaring contrast with the slender, quick, mild image of the saint.
The film’s characterization is no better. Even “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” captures something of Francis, an accomplishment Cavani seems not so much incapable of as uninterested in. Many of the famous chapters of Francis’ life are here, but the character moving through them seems to be not Francis, but another man of the same name.
Take the episode in which Francis’ father hauls him before the bishop to protest his son’s generosity giving away his father’s goods to the poor. When the father points out that Francis owes him everything, even the clothes on his back, Francis strips them off, as the story dictates — but instead of being the flamboyant, joyful gesture of the traditional story, with Francis running off naked, Rourke stands sheepishly clutching his clothes over his crotch, looking like a schoolboy who dropped his drawers in front of the girls on a dare.
Less poorly cast, though no better used, is a young Helena Bonham Carter as St. Clare. The film opens after Francis’ death, with Clare and Francis’ followers thoughtfully sharing memories of the man who inspired them all. The casual interactions between bareheaded Clare and Francis’ friars, as if their hanging around together were the most natural thing in the world, is jarringly anachronistic. If you want a film that really evokes the spirit of Saint Francis, stick with the Rossellini.
Bonus recommendation: For a film that richly evokes Pope Francis’ concern for the poor, don’t miss another Vatican list film, “Monsieur Vincent” (1947), Maurice Cloche’s biopic about St. Vincent de Paul, starring Pierre Fresnay.
Vincent de Paul is rightly considered the father of organized charity; if Francis of Assisi sparked a spiritual revolution by gathering men and women together and teaching them to live as beggars, Vincent de Paul sparked another revolution five centuries later by gathering men and women together and teaching them to feed and shelter beggars in an organized way. His work is carried on today not only by the orders he founded, such as the Sisters of Charity, but in a way by every soup kitchen and homeless shelter.
“Monsieur Vincent” expresses concern for the poor without romanticizing them, and neither lets the rich off nor turns a blind eye to their failings and responsibilities. No class or subset of society is spared or forgotten; no one is beyond criticism, or beyond hope and charity. If there is one film that most resonates with Pope Francis’ characteristic themes, it may be “Monsieur Vincent.” (Pixar’s “Wall-E” might be a close second.)