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In 1949, Italian director Roberto Rossellini had fallen in love with actress Ingrid Bergman during filming of Stromboli (1950) and when Bergman, who was still married to her husband, Lars Lindstrom, became pregnant with Rossellini's child, it created an international scandal. The two were even condemned on the floor of the United States Senate. In the midst of the scandal, Rossellini was busy shooting the religious-themed film Francesco, giullare di Dio (English title: The Flowers of St. Francis: God's Jester) (1950). Made up of short vignettes, it was admittedly an unfashionable film which Rossellini shot, because, as he explained, "It was important for me to affirm everything that stood against slyness and cunning. In other words, I believed then and still believe that simplicity is a very powerful weapon...The innocent one will always defeat the evil one. I am absolutely convinced of this. [I]f we want to go back to the historical moment, we must remember that these were cruel and violent centuries, and yet in those centuries of violence appeared Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Siena." Author Peter Bernette has suggested that Rossellini made the film because, "he was concerned with the despair and cynicism facing postwar Europe, and unashamedly offered Saint Francis and his philosophy as an answer, as a way back to an essential wholeness."
In his article, The Message of St. Francis, Rossellini wrote, "I never meant to re-create the life of the saint. In The Flowers of St. Francis, I don't deal with either his birth or his death, nor do I pretend to offer a complete revelation of the Franciscan message or of its spirit, or to tackle the extraordinarily awesome and complex personality of Francis. Instead, I have wanted to show the effects of it on his followers, among whom, however, I have given particular emphasis to Brother Ginapro and Brother Giovanni, who display in an almost paradoxical way the sense of simplicity, innocence, and delight that emanates from Francis' own spirit. In short, as the title indicates, my film wants to focus on the merrier aspect of the Franciscan experience, on the playfulness, the 'perfect delight', the freedom the spirit finds in poverty and in an absolute detachment from material things. I have tried to render this particular aspect of the great Franciscan spirit following the model of the Fioretti where I still find, intact, the perfume of the most primitive Franciscanism."
To this end, Rossellini and his collaborator Federico Fellini wrote a 28-page treatment about St. Francis as a series of vignettes. For the role of St. Francis, Rossellini cast a real-life Franciscan monk, Brother Nazario Gerardi of the Nocere Inferiore Monastery. The other actors, with the exception of famed comedian Aldo Fabrizi in the unusual role as Nicolaio the Tyrant, were non-professionals. This caused Rossellini some problems when he cast an old man in a bit part. "He was a poor man, a beggar, in the little town. He was so full of desire to help me and he loved me so deeply he always cried, "Ah, now, I have finally found a father," and that was me, because I helped him a little. He was full of good-will. He was called Peparuolo, which means someone with a red nose, because he used to drink. I said to him, "Now, this is the scene. You see that is St. Francis. You come into the scene and you say to Saint Francis, 'Oh! St. Francis, I want to be with you.' Do you understand?" "Yes, sir." "We can rehearse, we can try," I said, and so we started. "So I appear and see Saint Francis and I ask..." he said. "No, listen, that is my explanation, you don't have to repeat that. Have you understood?" "Yes, yes, yes." "So try again." "I appear, I go to Saint Francis, and I say, but that is your explanation, but I have to say..." He was all the time repeating the whole idea, and it was impossible to detach him from it. In order to use him, because he was such a character, my assistant brought him from far away while I prepared the scene. Without saying anything otherwise he would have repeated my words I called him with a gesture and pushed him into the middle of the scene and he improvised."
The Flowers of St. Francis premiered at the Venice Film Festival on August 26, 1950. According to Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini was very nervous that night, despite the packed house and excellent reception by the audience. When the film premiered in America in October, 1952, it received a sympathetic review by Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, who wrote, "has no form or dramatic theme. But thanks to the simplicity of its filming and the sympathetic musical score Renzo Rossellini has affixed, it sends one forth from the theatre feeling kindlier towards his fellow man."
Producer: Angelo Rizzoli
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini; Father Antonio Lisandrini; Father Felix Morlion; Roberto Rossellini (screenplay and story); Brunello Rondi (uncredited)
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
Music: Renzo Rossellini
Film Editing: Jolanda Benvenuti
Cast: Gianfranco Bellini (Narrator, voice), Aldo Fabrizi (Nicolaio, il tiranno di Viterbo), Pino Locchi (San Francesco, voice), Peparuolo (Giovanni il Sempliciotto), Fra' Severino Pisacane (Fra' Ginapro).
by Lorraine LoBianco
The Flowers of St. Francis: God's Jester by Peter Brunette
The New York Times film review, The Flowers of St. Francis by Bosley Crowther, October 7, 1952
The Message of St. Francis by Roberto Rossellini