Roberto Rossilini’s The Flowers of St. Francis ~ presented by Federico Fellini (Original theatrical release) [Import, All-Region] (Dvd) Directed by Roberto Rossellini and co-written by Federico Fellini.
Though there are some nice outdoor and garden scenes where flowering plants and trees are in bloom, in this movie, the “flowers” of St. Francis in this case are a collection of short stories, written vignette-style, concerning incidents in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, or, more accurately, some of his reputed monastic followers, who seemed to be operating with an idealistic, overzealous mind-set which looks dangerously askew to modern, rationalist audiences, but were presented as exemplars of holiness and humility to medieval audiences by the books .
upon which the movie is said to be loosely based According to Wikipedia:
The film is based on two books, the 14th-century novel Fioretti Di San Francesco Little Flowers of St. Francis and La Vita di Frate Ginepro (The Life of Brother Juniper), both of which relate the life and work of St. Francis and the early Franciscans. I Fioretti is composed of 78 small chapters. The novel as a whole is less biographical and is instead more focused on relating extravagant tales of the life of St. Francis and his followers. The movie follows the same premise, though rather than relating all 78 chapters, it focuses instead on nine of them.
Monks from the Nocere Inferiore Monastery played the roles of St. Francis and the friars.
Here we see St. Francis of Assisi portrayed in with what could be a degree of realism as well as flattery. Most popular depictions of St. Francis of Assisi make him come off as childlike, and even “cutesy” in order to put the point across that he was meek and mild. Plump and jolly “Friar Tuck” type figures abound, with brown burlap robes and the name “St. Francis of Assisi” attached to them. (Danny DeVito got his first role in a student theater production that way.) Depictions of St. Francis produced by and for the church and the truly religious, by contrast, often feature him as a slender, somber, extreme ascetic, an exemplar of the formality and elongated, idealized form for which icon painting is a tangible representation.
However, in this movie, we have St. Francis of Assisi as young and handsome, in spite of the tonsure and rough cloth robe; and additionally exuding both charm and confidence in such an instinctive way that even birds and animals reputedly responded to it. With some original thinking to break quarrels and deadlocks, St. Francis attracted and kept followers of varying abilities from Ginepro (the so-called “simpleton monk”) to the elderly (possible Alzheimer’s sufferer) Giovanni. It could also perhaps be said that Francis may have appeared to be such a wise leader because he effectively surrounded himself with the monastic equivalent of the Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers.
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.
From The Land of Cerpts and Honey
This may be the first recorded instance of “whirling dervishes” in the monasticism of the West.
The bonus material on the DVD shows an English-language introduction (not included in most prints of the film) which showed scenes from Hieronomys Bosch paintings and presented Francis’ movement as an alternative to the fear-based mentality of the so-called “dark Ages”.