Though Roberto Rossellini's Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God's Jester) tells stories of a Roman Catholic saint, it should not be branded merely as a religious film. Quite apart from the fact that Rossellini claimed to be an atheist, Rossellini's film shows no miracles, no supernature, no halo above St. Francis of Assisi: only inspired humanity. The film is more philosophical than religious, and as a reflection of Rossellini's historical interest, borne out in his future films, Francesco, giullare di Dio also emerges from the aesthetic of neorealism, a film movement that the director helped to define.
Known in America as The Flowers of St. Francis, Francesco, giullare di Dio was one of two pivotal films Rossellini unveiled on the same day at the 1950 Venice Film Festival. The other was Stromboli, the film on which the director and his star Ingrid Bergman (both married) initiated an affair that rocked the world. Francesco, giullare di Dio, then, was met with moralistic skepticism and popular and critical derision. Rossellini's critics, unlike the director, interpreted the film as an abandonment of neorealism, an unpleasant reminder that directors are typecast just as often as actors.
It's understandable that viewers would question the purity of intent of an ostensibly religious film emerging from a moral scandal, but The Flowers of St. Francis is too authentically innocent and contemplative to be mistaken for cynical opportunism. The film is genuine through and through, from its unadorned structure to its casting of non-actors as Francis and his followers (monks from the Nocera Inferiore Monastery). Bereft of an overarching narrative, The Flowers of St. Francis culls 10 episodes from writings that appeared decades after Francis' death in 1226: "The Little Flowers of St. Francis" and "The Life of Brother Ginepro."
Rossellini introduces each vignette with a title card, such as "How Brother Ginepro returned naked from St. Mary of the Angels, where the brothers had finished building their hut" or "Of the wonderful meeting between St. Clare and St. Francis at St. Mary of the Angels." In conventional story terms, little of significance happens, and characters are underdeveloped. Much has been made of the fact that the presumable supporting character of Brother Ginepro (Brother Severino Pisacane) consumes so much of the story, such as it is. But anyone attempting to box Rossellini into the conventions of film or even neorealism is missing the point.
If not in moment by moment, The Flowers of St. Francis leaves its philosophical residue on the viewer by accumulated effect. Most obviously, the film explores the humility of the Franciscans, who regularly sacrifice comfort to serve the poor and bring themselves closer to God through their forbearance. In theological discussions, the monks extol the ideals of joy and peace and consider how best to achieve them, but were The Flowers of St. Francis not derived (if loosely) from history, it could just as well be the story of Buddhist monks as Catholic ones.
The ascetics learn a zen calm and a respect for nature by Francis' example. When his robes catch on fire and another brother attempts to extinguish the flames, Francis scolds, "Why were you stingy with Brother Fire?" Rossellini also depicts the most famous iconography of Francis amongst nature: as he prays his famous prayer ("O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...") and the Lord's Prayer, birds sing sweetly and light on him. Francis is treated with piety, as a man of wisdom and love. A wordless encounter with a leper shows his human frailty and his desire to overcome it with unconditional goodness and serenity.
The Flowers of St. Francis also marks Rossellini's final collaboration with Federico Fellini (the screenplay is credited to Rossellini, "with the participation of" Fellini, Father Antonio Lisandrini, and Father Félix Morlión). Fellini's influence is felt most obviously in the longest vignette, the encounter of Brother Ginepro and the barbarian horde of the tyrant Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi). The wordless argument of experienced actor Fabrizi and neophyte Pisacane works brilliantly as a demonstration of passive resistance to violence and the authority of "being" on screen versus "acting." Fabrizi's comic overstatement is well placed—the tyrant is a buffoon—but Pisacane's fool-ish smile signifies unassailable triumph.
Though Francis was "God's jester," with a finely tuned sense of play, his disciples are the clowns who bumble along with the best of intentions. "It is better to preach by example than by words," says Francis, and sure enough, his example speaks loudly. Surrounded by greed, the monks sow generosity; met by hatred, they respond with love. The newest brother, a simpleton named Giovanni, represents the most foolish but most loving example of vocation. In the marvelous final scene, Francis engages dizzying child's play as a lesson in submission to God and life.
Working in a post-WWII idiom, Rossellini hoped that his audiences would join him in the struggle to overcome despair with optimism and spirit, accepting missteps as part of the journey. Accordingly, Rossellini begins the film with an excerpt from one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians: "God chose the foolish things of this world to humiliate the learned, the weak to humiliate the strong."
Anyone who loves film knows that the Criterion Collection produces peerless special editions of some of cinema's most treasured films. The Criterion Collection special edition of Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis is no exception, with a lively and sharply detailed transfer of the 55-year-old film and an illuminating collection of exclusive interviews.
Criterion always includes interesting liner notes, and often expands the enclosed booklet to add, to its newly produced essay, relevant articles contemporary to the film and filmmaker. The Flowers of St. Francis includes a 36-page booklet with a new Peter Brunette piece ("God's Jester"), Rossellini's personal director's note ("The Message of The Flowers of St. Francis"), André Bazin's letter "In Defense of Rosselini" (sent to Cinema nuovo editor Guido Aristarco in 1955), and the germane excerpts from Victoria Schultz's 1971 interview with Rossellini.
Criterion makes use of the MTI Digital Restoration System to remove dirt and scratches from old prints (this particular transfer derives from the 35mm restored internegative) and a similar process is applied to clean up soundtracks. Though slight traces of dust and scratches remain, the results are magnificent. As with other films of this age in the Criterion Collection, the only distraction is the slight image skip at the end of dissolves, which probably traces to the film source.
Criterion is good enough to provide as an extra the American-release prologue, thought to be an expurgated version of the prologue Rosselini included for the film's Venice Film Festival premiere then removed from the film before its Italian release. The prologue (6:12) begins with English opening titles, proceeds to the Italian opening titles, then presents narrated Italian art (mostly Giotto frescoes) to describe and depict the historical context of Francis and the order that bore his name.
"Notes on My Father: An Interview with Isabella Rossellini (16:03) allows the daughter of Rosselini and Ingrid Bergman to give her perspective on her father's films and attitudes. With a focus on The Flowers of St. Francis, Rossellini also shares personal recollections that shed further light on the man. "Adriano Aprà on 'The Flowers of St. Francis'" (18:08) allows the film expert to provide biographical, historical, and academic contexts for the film, and "My Conversations with Rossellini: An Interview with Film Critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi SJ" delivers just what its title promises, as Fantuzzi describes his efforts to draw the director into a conversation about The Flowers of St. Francis.
One hopes that these well-produced and fascinating featurettes augur the release of more Rossellini films in the Criterion Collection. For now, we can enjoy this 1950 classic in a beautiful presentation and with a bounty of thoughtful discussion about the film and its place in Rossellini's oeuvre.
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