Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Flowers of St. Francis

As ascetic in style as in subject, The Flowers of St. Francis depicts monkish life with radical simplicity. This pastoral hymn, at once comical and reverent, pays tribute to the uncommon devotion of these divine dimwits, who caper about their ramshackle monastery with all the giddiness of children (small surprise the original Italian title translates as Francis, God’s Jester). Indeed, the film is so confoundingly free of guile viewers may suspect director Roberto Rossellini of mocking the men’s innocence. Ginepro, the holiest fool of them all, maims a pig and mistakes the tortured squeals of “Brother Pig” for heavenly praise; a later scene where the village poor fight over scraps of charity from the monks could easily have been taken from Bunuel. Only a religious iconoclast like Rossellini, so ill at ease with institutional authority, could craft a work of such spiritual impiety. (Rather tellingly, the fiercest tyrant in the film rules with an iron fist so heavy he can’t even lift it, while Francis grows in power the more he denies his own strength.) The film carries a whiff of the didactic about it, but these parables of virtue and faith are always firmly planted in the stuff of life: cooking food, gathering flowers, building a home. When Francis lays weeping in a dusky meadow after an encounter with a leper, the camera tilts skyward towards the unblemished heavens, but such transcendent gestures are hardly characteristic of the film. Rossellini, much like the monks, is happier down in the mud.

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