Director Franco Zeffirelli is often accused of sentimentality, and this 1973 film and its flower power sensibility plays right into that expectation. St. Francis of Assisi is presented as the original hippie, complete with trippy folk songs and a "love will conquer all" pseudo-philosophy that gets little cred in our more savvy and cynical day.
It's too bad Brother Sun, Sister Moon has that reputation, because there's much more to the film than that. If we're embarrassed by the movie's simplistic rejection of war and materialism, how much more uncomfortable we would be with St. Francis himself? As easy (and tempting) as it may be to discount Donovan's "get high on God" lyrics, it's much harder (but just as tempting) to try to dodge the words of Jesus that Francis constantly quotes: "You cannot serve both God and money!" Certain aspects of the gospel fly in the face of Western consumerism, which is often quick to criticize anyone naive enough to take Christ's words at face value. (Improbably, the script was co-written by '70s iconoclast Lina Wertmuller, who would go on to write Swept Away and Seven Beauties. Such knowledge lends a certain weight to Brother Sun's critique of bourgeois materialism: as wrong-headed as she was, Wertmuller was utterly serious about her radical leftist politics, and it's intriguing to think of her making common cause with St. Francis.)
It's easy to criticize the acting in Brother Sun, particularly that of Graham Faulkner in the lead role. Still, it's not so much a bad performance as it is reflective of its time. Four years earlier, Leonard Whiting did a similar turn in the title role of Zeffirelli's widely-praised Romeo and Juliet, complete with the requisite running-through-fields-of-flowers sequence, neither less nor more cloying than Faulkner as Francesco. That's how Idealistic Young Men were supposed to act and, within the convention of the day, these youthful actors are just fine. There is a certain fey staginess to these performances, which partly comes from the era and partly from the director's background in live theater and opera. If you can't get past it, this film won't work for you. But for anyone who can, there's a lot to appreciate in Zeffirelli's hagio-pic.
Visually, the film is gorgeous—justifying its Academy Award nominations for art decoration and set decoration. If the decision to release this out-of-step-with-the-zeitgeist movie on DVD seems questionable, some of those questions will be answered by the vivid colors and eye-catching composition. Francesco's father was a cloth merchant, trading in beautifully dyed, richly textured fabrics from exotic lands: the opulence is tangible, the appeal of such riches undeniable. Assisi's young soldiers gather in the church to be blessed by the bishop before departing for the Crusades, standing arrayed in cobalt-blue battle dress or sitting astride horses clad in copper and silver colored armor, their helmets a kind of death mask, echoed in the jewel-encrusted Christ on the church's ornate crucifix. There is a sustained image of Francis's face covered in cloth, which clearly evokes the shroud of Turin. For the first fifteen minutes of the film we repeatedly view him through gauzy fabric: a death-shroud between him and the life he knew. At one point we hover above his canopied bed, a casket made of translucent cloth.
Once Francis has his spiritual awakening—in reaction to the bejeweled Christ in the Assisi church—he goes to the fields, and there is a new palette of colors, the natural tones of poppy fields, forested valleys, sheep and sky, photographed with all the vibrant juxtapositions of an impressionist painting. Zeffirelli filmed in the Umbrian hills near the actual birthplace of St. Francis, and it is illuminating to realize that the saint who so gloried in God's creation was surrounded by this kind of beauty. The image of the broken-down chapel of San Damiano, all grey rubble in the heart of a magnificent green valley, is a marvel of composition—and all of this to frame a single battered and neglected wooden cross, carved with a naked Jesus. This will be Francis's new church, rebuilt by the hands of the poor.
The film culminates, visually and thematically, with Francis's audience with Pope Innocent III in Rome. The grey-habited monks enter a scene of impossible majesty and splendor, the papal court arrayed on either side of the massive hall in sumptuous colored garments, the mile-high ceiling sparkling with jewels set in gold. In the film's most stunning moment we see lavishly tiled steps, the perspective flattened to create the effect of an intricately tiled wall, down which the pope descends, clad in white, as if from heaven. "Is it not possible, Holy Father, to live according to the teachings of our Lord? Or have we sinned through presumption? If that be the case, then we would like your Holiness to tell us of our errors." The pope replies: "My dearest son, errors will be forgiven. In our obsession with original sin we too often forget original innocence. Don't let that happen to you. … We are encrusted with riches and power. You in your poverty put us to shame."
It is a deeply moving scene, a culmination of all that has led us here. It's by far the strongest dialogue of the entire film—note the subtlety of the pope's reference to innocence—and the performance by veteran actor Alec Guinness is flawless, timeless, more than compensating for whatever we find lacking in other performances.
The most serious problem with this film is its softness, that sentimentality Zeffirelli is often accused of. Where are the stigmata? Where are the exhaustion, disease, despair that poverty, even intentional poverty, brings, even to saints? Where is the aging St. Francis, betrayed by his successors? Not in this film. (If you want those darker colors, try Liliana Cavani's 1989 film Francesco, which is on the Vatican's list of spiritually significant films.)
Still, there is something right in making a simple film about a man whose life was all about simplicity. I almost wonder if this film might have the potential to be more challenging in 2004 than it was three decades ago, when Francis's radical rejection of wealth and privilege may have seemed indistinguishable from the taken-for-granted cultural cliché . Arguably, audiences at the time had become immune to this kind of talk, inoculated by over-exposure.
In our time, the first response to a film is far less sympathetic; we condescend to its naïveté,and are inclined to dismiss it as superficial and simplistic. But I wonder what kind of qualms we might be in for when we realize that, at a certain point, these are Christ's own words we're condescending to.
It's hard to discern where the sentimental wishful thinking of a younger time leaves off, and the hard realities of a still more ancient gospel begin. If this film doesn't quite manage to achieve all it sets out to accomplish, perhaps at least it may cause us to wrestle with some important things—to hold our knowing pragmatism up against the impracticalities of the youthful idealism of Zeffirelli's decade, or maybe even the holy folly of St. Francis's century. Or maybe even the radical gospel of Jesus, no more or less appropriate in our time than it was in his.
This disk is Franciscan in its simplicity. No commentary track, no theatrical trailers, just a great-looking transfer of a very pretty movie.Discussion starters
- St. Francis often quotes the words of Jesus, especially passages about wealth and sacrifice (Matthew 6:19-21,24-33 ; Matthew 19:29 ). What other Scriptures are cited in the film? How do they apply in your own life?
- Some say the film portrays Francis as a 12th-century hippie. What do you think? What motivates Francesco to give up the wealth and power of his family?
- Giocondo fears he won't be able to keep the vow of chastity, saying repeatedly, "God forgive me, a miserable sinner," adding that he'd "gladly face eternal damnation for one moment of love." How would you have responded? How does Francis respond?
- Various characters have a change of heart toward Francis, including several of his companions and two of the churchmen he comes in contact with. Are these "conversions" convincing?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film is rated PG, probably because of a scene involving non-sexual nudity, in which Francis makes a break with his past by stripping off his fine clothes and walking naked through the town square. The scene is historical, and is rendered tastefully.
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