Italy | 83 min.
black & white
Roberto Rossellini, 1950
Roberto Rossellini and co-writer Federico Fellini lovingly render the very spirit of Franciscan teaching in this extraordinarily fresh and simple film which was unappreciated at the time of its release, but now regarded as one of his greatest. Shot in a neorealist manner with non-professional actors (including thirteen real Franciscan monks from the convent of Nocere Inferiore) it avoids the pious clichés of haloed movie saints with an economy of expression and a touching, human quality.
Inspired by I fioretti (“Little Flowers”), a collection of stories about St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan monks, Rossellini’s Francesco giullare di Dio takes place in the early 13th century when violent conflicts between individual cities tore Italy apart. Pestilence and famine were widespread and the powerful abbeys became rife with corruption and abuses of power. Amidst this unrest, Giovanni Francesco Bernadine (Francis of Assisi) began to foster a community that challenged people to reclaim the humility and purity of the teachings of Christ.
Presented, like the book it is based on, as a tableau of episodes from the life of ‘the people’s saint’, Francesco giullare di Dio offers a compelling vision of life that rejects materialism and violence. Thanks to Rossellini’s film, Francesco and his little brothers will remain alive forever: making handicrafts, planting seeds, and building huts in their harmonious accord between Man and Nature.
Never properly released theatrically nor on home video in the UK, The Masters of Cinema Series proudly presents Francesco giullare di Dio in its fully restored glory. This is the original Italian version reaffirming intertitles and scenes removed from the US release version “The Flowers of St. Francis”.
“The most beautiful film in the world.” – François Truffaut
“Among the most beautiful in Italian cinema.” – Pier Paolo Pasolini
“I’ve never seen the life of a saint treated on film with so little solemnity and so much warmth.” – Martin Scorsese
by Martin Scorsese, 2005
The first time I saw Flowers of St. Francis in the early 70s, I was genuinely surprised. I had never imagined that a filmmaker would dare to treat the life of a saint with so little solemnity, and with so much warmth and humanity.
There’s one central problem with most pictures about saints: reverence. The aura of reverence is almost always at odds with the way the saints must have felt about themselves. It’s as if they’d already been declared saints in their own lifetime, as if every word out of their mouths had been pre-sanctified. This reverent approach has made for quite a few perfectly nice, well-intentioned movies completely lacking in urgency, either dramatically or spiritually.
What Rossellini did, with such grace and such apparent ease, was to make a movie about a group of men for whom existence is a neverending struggle – a struggle to be good, a struggle to stay true to the word of God. At times, the struggle becomes comic, and I still marvel at Rossellini’s daring in these scenes – the way Francis and his brethren jump through the puddles, or the cooking of the soup, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Laurel and Hardy short. Of course, it’s all done in a very loving manner, and that’s why it is at once so magical and so true. We’re all ridiculous at times – even those of us who are declared saints.
For me, the greatest moment in the film is Francis’ confrontation with the leper. This is compassion at its most terrifyingly direct, without any of the boundaries or filters we’re accustomed to in daily life. Most of us, particularly those of us who live in cities, are confronted with human misery on a daily basis – and most of us, understandably, find a way to compartmentalize it. Francis’ lack of self in that scene never fails to move me – the way he feels the suffering of another human being so completely that he allows it to enter into him and inhabit his own soul. I’ve never seen another film that deals with this basic question of compassion so eloquently.
Many artists throughout the world responded to the aftermath of WWII and the holocaust by going back to basics, simplifying, and, at least for the moment, speaking directly. Rossellini spoke with the greatest and most elemental simplicity to the question of faith – in The Miracle (the wonder of faith), in Germany Year Zero (the absence of faith), in Europa ‘51 (the crisis of faith) and in this extraordinary film about the beauty of faith. I’ve never seen another film quite like Flowers of St. Francis, and I don’t expect to in my lifetime.
Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker based in New York City.