Mar. 06, 2013 - Issue #907: Garbage Goes Green
The Flowers of St Francis
"If I mistakenly make a beautiful shot," Roberto Rossellini said. "I cut it out." This refusal to ravish our senses suffuses the director's black-and-white, Italian Neorealism classic The Flowers of St Francis with its own austere glory. From its opening scene—friars, clad in simple tunics as they walk barefoot through rain and mud, exulting in their wonder for God—what's seen confronts what's felt. Suffering in God's name is true happiness, the leader tells his followers. The starkness of the wholly external is met by the holy internal of Francis of Assisi (played by an actor who's not even credited, only echoing the story's emphasis on humility) and his followers.
The Italian title's best translated as "Francis, God's jester" and the film imagines Francis' followers—particularly naïve Ginepro (Severino Pisacane) and simpleton Giovanni (Peparuolo)—as child-like innocents in an otherwise sombre, corrupt countryside, revelling in their love for God. Rossellini and co-writer Federico Fellini are also playing radically with Neorealism's rebellion against cause-effect linearity, making the film entirely episodic. Certain episodes will offer up little more than a brief parable (while building a stone hut, one Franciscan tells another, "Put your heart into each stone, and each stone will make you greater").
Not that there isn't mystery here, amid the followers' purity of purpose and calm of devotion: why does Francis tell Ginepro to not give his tunic to the needy? Are Rossellini and Fellini suggesting bodily desire for each other turned safely sacred when St Francis and St Clare meet, his and her "words ... inflamed with the love of God?" And there's Ginepro, conquering, by force of his unwavering love for God, the bushy-browed, bristly-moustached, tinpot tyrant Nicolaio. Is this veneration of the poor and humble, in the face of narrow-minded powers, a veiled parable for lofty Neorealism (championing the working-class and the everyday) besting Italy's philistine rulers? (Mussolini detested proto-Neorealist films and post-war officials like Giulio Andreotti tried to curb Neorealism.)
Art triumphed—The Flowers of St Francis, with its grace and simplicity, is now a classic of the cinematic movement rejected by so many Italians at the time in favour of imported American fare. And, 63 years on, Rossellini's vision of St Francis (1181 – 1226) offers a picture of humble Catholicism at stark odds with the reality of the Church's ruling elite today.
Sat, Mar 9 – Thu, May 14
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 1950
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