The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

by | Aug 24, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Co-written by Federico Fellini
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection
Video: 1.33:1 full screen B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, in Italian
Subtitles: English
Extras: New interviews with Isabella Rossellini, film historian Adriano
Aprà, film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, Prologue from American
release, Improved subtitle translations, 36-page booklet with essay by
film scholar Peter Brunette and writings by Roberto Rossellini and
critic André Bazin
Length: 87 minutes
Rating: ** (general audiences) **** (Italian Catholics)

One of the most overtly religious classic films ever made, coming from
the period when Rossellini was involved in a huge celebrity scandal
over his affair with Ingrid Bergman—while both were still married to
others. Jacques Demy called it “the most beautiful film ever made.”
Rossellini continued the neorealist style which he had established in
his classic Open City, but applied it to a series of simple vignettes
from the life of the People’s Saint—Francis. Instead of the seasoned
actors found in other religious films he used actual monks from a
monastery, and shot many of the scenes in evocation of medieval
paintings of the period. (He had become interested in the Franciscans
while shooting a previous film using three German prisoners of war as
actors; they were staying at a Franciscan monastery.)

St. Francis’ teachings of humility, faith, compassion and sacrifice are
illustrated by the various simple “flowers”  or stories about him
and his followers. Francis is not even the primary focus of many of the
stories, but instead a disciple name Ginepro, who is a sort of God’s
fool. One effective tale concerns his intent to preach to a large
group. He learns that a terrible tyrant has laid siege to an innocent
city and starts by trying to talk to a rough band of soldiers. He is
thrown around and brutalized by them, finally being brought to the
tyrant, who is hilariously encased in a huge metal suit of armor from
which he can only peer out with one eye thru a crack under his big
helmet. Next the big beefy (and over-acting) tyrant gets his armorers
to undo his armor and drags the little beat-up monk into his
tent—silently attempting to scare him by making a series of threatening
moves toward him, including the popular fingers-into-eyes. The monk
never flinches thru it all and continues to smile beatifically. 
Finally the tyrant exits his tent, blows his cow horn and announces to
all his men that the siege is ended and they are leaving. This is the
only scene in the film with crowds of other people in varied costumes,
with tents, buildings, weapons and much noise; the intent is to
contrast with the simple and quiet life of the Franciscans.

Some of the stories seem rather silly, as Francis’ naive followers
create serious problems trying to practice their Christianity or just
to survive without any money. Francis often saves the day with a
spiritual solution, but I frankly found the story about Ginepro cutting
off a pig’s foot because a fasting monk expressed a desire for it
shocking, distasteful and at the least thoroughly unChristian. (I was
wondering if Fellini—who was a questioner and strong satirist of things
Catholic—had a hand in that tale. But then it was one of the original
stories.) The opening scenes with the monks walking and standing around
in the drenching rain in their blanket robes may replicate some
medieval paintings, but to modern viewers it eventually wanders into
the absurd or humorous. Perhaps I had trouble getting myself into
Rossellini’s atmosphere of naive simplicity, not to mention eradicating
Monty Python’s Holy Grail from memory.

The restoration of the original 35mm film is superb, with untold
thousands of scratches, dirt and other artifacts removed digitally. To
preserve the image quality the highest possible bit rate was used on
this DVD-9 dual-layer transfer. However, there must have been more
tonal variation in the different internegatives than could be
compensated for, because at least twice all the monks’ robes suddenly
switch from black to a light grey between shots. The soundtrack was
remastered at 24 bit digital from the original mono optical track, but
at the times when the musical score comes up the fidelity is painfully
poor. Brunette’s essay in the provided booklet is fascinating
reading—illustrated with many stills from the film, and the interview
with Isabella Rosselini, shot in 2004, is worthwhile viewing. It might
be helpful to look at the special prologue in the extras before viewing
the film for the first time. It was intended to put the film in a
historical context thru the art of the period.

– John Sunier

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