Dir. Roberto Rossellini. Starring Nazario Gerardi, Severino Pisacane, Esposito Bonaventura
Federico Fellini worked with Rossellini on several of his movies as a writer. Whether or not one prefers his neorealist period to his baroque one is up for contention, but it’s a pleasure in either event to see the off-kilter characters who would populate his later films especially popping up in Rossellini’s. Brother Ginepro (Pisacane) is an odd duck, mostly ridiculous, frequently earnest, and completely endearing. His superior, Francis (Gerardi), believes literally in Christ’s command to consider the lilies of the field, and yet even he fails to live in the moment as entirely as Ginepro. Throughout the course of the film, Ginepro gives away his clothes twice (the second time using legalese to explain why he disobeyed Francis’ command not to give away his tunic), cuts off a pig’s foot for a fasting brother, makes two weeks’ worth of food before refrigeration, and walks into a siege believing that he can alter the heart of a warlord. Ginepro is desperate to preach but finds himself stuck on cooking duty with Giovanni (Bonaventura), the personification of a holy fool and himself rather Felliniesque; the line between the equally singleminded Giovanni and Uncle Teo is fairly straight. Ginepro’s frustration leads to action; cooking in advance leaves more time to preach, and leaving malleable children on a see-saw behind for vicious generals presents a greater challenge for his persuasiveness. How likable he is is matched only by how frustrating he is, a hallmark of Fellini’s characters from Guido Anselmi to Cabiria to Titta. When he chases down some pigs hoping to get a pig’s foot from one of them, he speaks to them as one might speak to a child about to get a tetanus booster. Come on, brother pigs, he implores, help me do a good deed for our brother and you’ll be the happier for it. He believes he can singlehandedly convert Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi, hiding behind equally ridiculous armor and facial hair), which he ends up doing, but only once he surrenders his pride. In the interim very large men with very large fake beards fling him around and bear him about and even drag him behind a horse. The original Italian title of the film refers to Francis as “God’s Jester,” although Fellini raises the question of what happens when God’s jester has his own subordinate clown.
Rossellini, for his part, gives us ample opportunity to read Ginepro’s humanistic impulses by depicting his energy time and again; Pisacane must be on screen at least as often as Gerardi. It’s not the best collaboration between Rossellini and Fellini—this film lacks the raw power of Paisan or the groundbreaking elements of Rome, Open City—but The Flowers of St. Francis has a different sort of target in mind. Where some of his earlier films attempt to report or influence, Flowers anticipates the effort of future European directors to observe. The surroundings of St. Mary of the Angels are as walked over by us as the boards of Borgen’s Farm of Ordet or the Zone of Stalker or the rural archipelago of Summer with Monika, and there’s a holiness to those simple grounds borrowed by simple people.
In many ways the movie is at its best when it reflects that spirit of simplicity. These are scenes which more to Francis (who I am too used to by his Anglicized name to call “Francesco”) than anyone else, and they are themselves at their best when no one has much to say. One chapter features an upcoming visit from Clare (Arabella Lemaitre), who has devoted herself to Christ as well, and whose arrival sends the men into a froth of activity. They collect flowers to carpet the ground, do their best to shave and give haircuts with the world’s largest scissors, sweep the chapel. From a distance, four hooded women appear on the horizon with the sun behind them, descending to the men who are too excited to wait for them at the bottom of the hill. (Francis, as befits his dignity, waits for Clare.) In the chapel at prayer, Clare kneels at the center of the shot while Francis is shunted to the left foreground, away from the camera. It is her holy face which dominates the screen, not his, rather as the Virgin tends to hold the center of art made about her.
Or take the scene where a hideously deformed leper walks at night, the bell on his walking stick clanging against the silence of the evening. Francis cannot hold back from trying to comfort the leper, following him, hugging him, trying to speak to him. The leper is impassive, pushes him away. Whether it’s because he does not wish to infect Francis with his disease or it’s because he is immune to the kindness of others after having been ostracized is impossible to know. In either event, the leper passes on and Francis weeps not for the first time, but most bitterly. Gerardi is a monk, not an actor, and his tears are never very convincing. All the same he looks more likely in his tunic than some actor who could weep on command; his face is authentically serene and even the most hackneyed words about belief seem true enough when they leave his lips. When a sequence fails, such as the one where he and Brother Leone discuss what brings the most perfect happiness, it has more to do with a weak situation than it does with weak performance. The Flowers of St. Francis is at its best when it lets us draw our own judgments about the relative holiness of its characters and suffers when a parable is too neatly translated. Regardless of how one feels about Ginepro mutilating a pig for the whim of a friend, the movie at least gives us a chance to feel horrified or amused or some mixture of both.
Of the film’s nine chapters, my favorite is the last one. Even after watching the brothers living off the goodwill of the people—and in at least surviving against the odds because of it—it’s amazing to watch them give away everything they have to the poor. They do it twice, in fact: once when they leave St. Mary of the Angels, leaving the simple church building and the gift of bells for the altar to the care of the poor, and again when they receive alms in town. The bread they are given goes to people who need it. One person challenges them aggressively for some food, and perceiving that this aggression is merely desperation, the brothers give it to him with the same bland joy they have for everyone else. (The movie is clever, perhaps even sly about this sequence. In the speed with which the brothers give their possessions away, not even stopping to think about how much bread they might need, the film simultaneously shows us how unpretentiously they abide by the word of Christ while making their example so remarkable that it becomes showy.) Francis tearfully commits the brothers to preach on their own, although this is tempered with the seeming silliness of how he sets them off. Spin around until you are dizzy and fall, Francis says. The brothers do so, although Giovanni takes an awfully long time to get there. Whatever direction you fell in, Francis says, that is where you will go. It’s a scene that loves closeups, fills the frame with people, and then in the end pulls well back of them, many yards away. We can no longer see faces or expressions, only the movement of the friars across land or through a shallow river. The camera pans up at the end, looking at the clouds backlit by sun, presuming that we look at God while God looks benevolently at his peripatetic adherents.