The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

20 01 2009

Perhaps I should preface this entry with a little personal information: I’ve been in Italy for the past two weeks, which explains the inactivity in posts. The more important part about this is that it made me fairly anxious to find films related to the locations of my vacation. Rossellini film doesn’t fit in, actually, since most of it takes place in an unnamed forest, but I was able to visit Assisi, where St. Francis was born and where his body is kept to this very day. Maybe this created a little bias, but I still feel quite confident in proclaiming this film a masterpiece.

This is the second Rossellini film I’ve seen, the first being Voyage to Italy, and I’m obviously very impressed. That film is equally excellent, but the whole setup, involving a relationship’s failure being brought to the forefront by something, isn’t exactly “new” to me. Antonioni, Naruse, and countless other directors have followed this type of emotional structure. It doesn’t exactly make Voyage to Italy any less good, it just didn’t lead me to anticipate a film as beautiful and revolutionary as The Flowers of St. Francis. It seems so simple and straight-forward, but that’s what makes it so unique.

I feel obligated to mention right off the bat that Rossellini’s depiction of St. Francis and his monks isn’t “other-worldly.” At the same time, these men are still saints, but Rossellini establishes a perfect balances and has them come off as human saints. While these men do spend most, if not all, of their time in contemplation, they still sometimes fall back into more common human instincts. For example, there is one scene in which Brother Ginapro wants to prepare a meal for a Brother who has been fasting. He asks him what he can prepare, and Brother responds by mentioning a desire for a pig’s foot. Ginapro goes to a nearby farm and approaches a school of pigs. He wants to get a pig’s foot, but he does it in an almost absurdly gentle way. “Brother pig” he calls out “allow me to take one of your legs.” Such a scene perfectly illustrates the delicate balance Rossellini achieves between the comedic, the dramatic, and the tragic. Luis Buñuel, who is a wonderful filmmaker, would have probably been more satirical in his depiction of the monks. A bit more “mean” to be blunt. Even though Rossellini’s monks are in humorous situations, they themselves are never the punch line to the joke.

It is, of course, absolutely impossible to explain with words just what Rossellini feels (or at the very least, seems to feel) for these characters. It’s not mushy, it’s not critical, it just feels real. It helps a great deal, though, that his characters are never driven by a linear plot. Instead, the film is built around a dozen (or so) vignettes that have no connection outside of the characters that are featured within them. It’s hard for me not to bring up Harmony Korine’s Gummo, which feels truly odd referencing in a superficially “religious” film. But Korine and Rossellini both build their film on these touching (but not overtly or even intentionally so) moments of pure truth. A perfect example would be St. Francis’ own wordless encounter with a leper. It’s a sequence terribly sad, but it feels like it is so for a reason beyond the obvious, a “leper.”

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One response

20 01 2009
Allison

Assisi would have been a cool place to visit. But no, The Flowers of St. Francis really is a masterpiece. It’s among Rossellini’s best. Good review.

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