FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS, THE (Francesco, giullare di Dio) (FRANCIS, GOD’S JESTER)

(director/writer: Roberto Rossellini; screenwriters: Federico Fellini/ Father Antonio Lisandrini/Father Félix Morión; cinematographer: Otello Martelli; editor: Jolanda Benvenuti; music: Enrico Buondonno/Renzo Rossellini; cast: Aldo Fabrizi (Nicolaio, the Tyrant), Brother Nazario Gerardi (Brother Francis of Assisi), Arabella Lemaitre (Sister Clare), Peparuolo (Giovanni); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Angelo Rizzoli; The Criterion Collection; 1950)

“Rossellini shows a great compassion and humor for the friars.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A delightfully easy-flowing didactic black-and-white film by Roberto Rossellini (“Paisan”/”Germany Year Zero”) that tells of the spiritual life of St. Francis of Assisi (Nazario Gerardi) from the time he brought together his followers to build the Franciscan Order to their dispersing to go out into the world to preach on their own. St. Francis was born at Assisi in Umbria in 1181 or 1182 and died there in 1226. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and noble mother who gave away all his material possessions to follow the word of God. The film acts as a counterpoint to the despair and cynicism of the postwar Europe by its humanistic story of reaching spiritual enlightenment. The simplicity, good will and sometimes silliness of the medieval St. Francis’s religious message of peace to all is a call back to the faithful to again listen to the naïve who are sincere rather than those who are merely clever and not as pure hearted. It’s Rossellini’s belief that the pure at heart will always overcome the evil of the world.

Everything in the episodic film follows the legends of their origin as told by the Franciscans in their documents. St. Francis called himself the jester of God; he wanted to look silly and laugh at himself in a self-effacing way for being a poor man, thinking that was the only way of finding the truth. Most of the actors were nonprofessionals, with St. Francis and the brothers played by real Franciscan monks from the Nocera Inferiore Monastery and the one called Peparuolo playing the dotty old man Giovanni was actually a beggar in the town. The part of Nicolaio the Tyrant was histrionically played by renown actor Aldo Fabrizi. The neorealism film premiered at the Venice Film Festival of 1950 just after Rossellini finished making Stromboli with Ingrid Bergman, and the two marrieds caused an international controversy because of their reported scandalous affair. Federico Fellini was listed as co-writer.

The film opens as Brother Francis and his disciples leave Umbria by foot to arrive at the rural village of Rivo Torto in a driving rain storm. They are turned away from shelter in a hut by an angered peasant. Brother Francis joyously remarks “Have we not now reason to rejoice? Providence at last has made us useful to others.” They soon arrive at the abandoned ruins of the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels and fix it up and upon completion use it as their home. They then interact with the local villagers, offering communion, even to those who are hostile. St. Francis urges his charges to act by example and lead by doing honest work and offering charity. In a comical gesture Brother Ginepro gives his tunic away to a beggar leaving him without a proper covering, as St. Francis orders him to no longer go that far and confines him to the grounds as a cook so opportunists won’t take advantage of his good nature. What follows are their many adventures that make their naivety seem a welcome sight and a reason for their spiritual flowering. In the end, they all leave to travel on separate paths as teachers of peace of the Franciscan Order. Where they go is determined by them spinning around like a top (imitating a child’s game) and taking the direction they stop at when dizzy as that being the one of God’s will.

Rossellini shows a great compassion and humor for the friars, as he clearly shows how their simple life and innocence is the virtue that sustains them.