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Rossellini had actually been planning to make a film about St. Francis for several years, ever since the filming of Paisan in 1946. It was while he was shooting the sequence where the three German prisoners take refuge in a monastery that he and co-writer Fellini became excited about the idea of using real monks in a film about St. Francis. So when they finally had the opportunity to make The Flowers of St. Francis, they cast actual Franciscan monks instead of professional actors in all of the key roles with the exception of Aldo Fabrizi, who plays Nicolaio the Tyrant in the most theatrical and unexpected episode in the film.
The Flowers of St. Francis, now available in a stunning new DVD transfer from the Criterion Collection that showcases the original Italian release version, is anecdotal in structure like the Fioretti and presents each episode with a subject or theme such as "How at night Francisco praying in the forest encountered the leper." One is immediately struck by Rossellini's lyrical, free form approach to the narrative that begins with the opening scene of Francis and his followers returning from a pilgrimage in the rain. Sound and movement predominate, rather than spoken dialogue, as we observe the monks moving through the countryside on their daily tasks, in harmony with nature and the elements. The drama arises from watching these naive, uneducated innocents (what an array of amazing faces!) attempting to communicate the teachings of St. Francis to those who cross their path. Unlike the stereotypes of monks writing in their bare cells by candlelight, these Franciscans are not a cerebral group; they're constantly bustling with purpose - gathering wood, building fires, constructing a new hut for shelter, and in one incident, chasing down a pig and amputating its leg for food! Just as unexpected is Rossellini's wry sense of humor that almost threatens to burst forth in Monty Python-like routines at times. Case in point: St. Francis's encounter with the leper reveals the monk to be extremely repulsed and fearful of touching this pitiful creature in his path. Yet he manages to overcome his revulsion to embrace the leper who is completely stunned by the gesture. Then the moment passes and the leper continues on his way, clanging his warning bell into the distance. The film is full of these little moments which resonate long after the film is over.
In the key role of St. Francis, Brother Nazario Gerardi demystifies the character, making him a believable human being who's compassionate but imperfect; he's often prone to foolishness at times and occasional puzzlement over the actions of his followers. But the real scene stealers in The Flowers of St. Francis are seventy-two-year old Esposito Bonaventura (aka Peparuolo), who plays Giovanni, the slightly senile peasant who joins the group, and Brother Severino Pisacane as the often maddening Brother Ginepro, who figures in the film's most outrageous scene. Entering the camp of Nicolaio, the tyrant of Viterbo, he is tossed from barbarian to barbarian like a sack of flour until he is finally granted a private audience with Nicolaio who simply can't make sense of this serene and enigmatic little man. Some viewers may have the same response - Is Brother Ginepro a holy fool or a simpleton? Commenting on Brother Ginepro's encounter with Nicolaio, Rossellini said "The camp sequence is one of the "flowers" of Saint Francis, Brother Ginepro, and Brother Giovanni, those little stories...It is very rare to find this account. Generally, when The Flowers is published, it is cut out because it is the silliest, yet it is the most valuable." (from the Criterion liner notes).
When Rossellini finally unveiled The Flowers of St. Francis at the Venice Film Festival, the audience applauded throughout the film. The critics, however, were more divided and the detractors took offense at aspects of it. One Italian critic wrote, "Its most obvious fault is precisely its lack of realism. These twentieth-century monks, fat and contented, comfortably clothed in grey homespun, the disciples of an order which is now part of the religious establishment, in no wise suggest the original Franciscans, vagabonds in every way - half-starved, ragged, and so sickly-looking that they frequently scared women and children." The movie's advocates, however, were more internationally renowned and are partly responsible for saving the film from obscurity (it was a financial failure at the box office). Director Pier Pasolini ranked it "among the most beautiful in Italian cinema," Francois Truffaut called it "the most beautiful film in the world," Andrew Sarris placed it as number eight on his top ten list at one time, and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, "These little incidents, filmed in the outdoors in the most simple and almost amateurish way, have an innocence and naivete about them that establish, at least, a gentle mood of wonder at such faith and humility."(from The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini by Tag Gallagher)
As usual for a Criterion disc, the extras on The Flowers of St. Francis are exemplary. There are revealing and informative new video interviews with Isabella Rossellini, film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi and film historian Adriano Apra. You can also view the original American-release prologue which placed the film in a historical context through frescoes and paintings by Gotto and other artists. There is also a 36-page booklet that includes an interview with Rossellini, a new essay by film scholar Peter Brunette and writings by French critic Andre Bazin. In other words, this is an essential DVD for any serious film lover's collection, as cinematically engaging and emotionally rich as Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Agnes Varda's Vagabond (1985).
For more information about The Flowers of St. Francis, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Flowers of St. Francis, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeff Stafford