One of the Vatican's favorite films (though that in itself perhaps doesn't mean much anymore), "The Flowers of St. Francis" is a 1950 meditative film by Rossellini, who worked with Fellini on this near-transcendent motion picture. No one I know has seen this; less manage to sit through the entire thing (even though its only 87 minutes long), but this is not supposed to be an action-packed adventure. Instead, it's a quiet, simple tale of monks and their beliefs steeped in divine love for the Infinite, and is divided into heartwarming little vignettes. While St. Francis is indeed the focus of the film, it also pays loving attention to his disciples, most notably Brother Ginepro, and the actor who plays this role deserves special mention.
A lot is written about St. Francis (who lived during the 1200s), and he is a personal source of inspiration for all of us who are spiritually inclined, only because he was patron saint of nature, and strived to teach his disciples about the essence of the Bible rather than blindly following its' tenets. His disciples were often simple-minded, almost always not well-educated, but they had hearts of gold, and the director focuses on this aspect of their lives more than anything else. Filmed in black and white and presented beautifully by the Criterion Collection, this is indeed one of their Top 10 releases ever. Sadly, I suppose, this film is wrongly considered `boring' by mainstream audiences who cant muster up the patience to sit through a work of this nature.
The vignettes here are all from the famed St. Francis book - little allegorical tales from various parts of his life. Most of them concern him and his monks' fervent belief that divine love conquers all - even to the extent of sacrificing their own physical well-being for the concept. Its interesting to see these monks actually practice this concept at such bizarre extremes - subjecting themselves to physical abuse & being violated in a variety of forms - but then this seems to gratify them as proof of Gods existence and love for all beings on earth. Also touched upon in spades is St. Francis' special love of his environment - with focus on his enlightened approach to birds, animals, and plants.
Rossellini's genius lay in the fact that all of the actors who play the monks were actual Franciscan monks from rural Italy! There is a certain joy and innocence in their eyes that is absolutely impossible to achieve with a jaded real-life actor. Consider the scene when young brother Ginepro is confronted by a tyrant, who is eventually mesmerized by the purity in his eyes. The monk who plays Ginepro is flawless, and a film scholar who narrates a video commentary in the Special Features section rates this actors' performance as one of the best performances in Italian cinematic history. I would have to agree. There is a mood of joy, simple refinement, nobility, happiness and relaxed happiness that is present in every frame of this film - be it the classic shots of the monks running in the rain, or strolling down a hilly meadow. At times, there is `not much going on', but that's the very point!
The film ends with one of the most classic St. Francis tales - where his disciples ask him for direction - and he asks them all to spin around in circles wherever they might stand; and when they fall down, they must travel the direction to which their bodies point. They divest themselves of all food or nourishment, and each monk travels in a different direction without question, with the sole purpose of spreading the message of Gods' love, without the slightest thought of their own comfort or safety, or physical needs. A fascinating concept - but this has also been documented as fact, which only proves that people back then had a certain grasp on things that present day societies might find very hard to comprehend. There is a highly charged segment where a monk approaches a leper (considered an outcast and untouchable) and proceeds to embrace him, as he believes that Gods love is for all. It's a short scene - filmed at night under the stars - but serves as the backbone for the message of the entire picture.
The Special Features section have been well compiled by Criterion. The best is Isabella Rossellini talking about her father and explaining his work with both Ingrid Bergman and Fellini. Its interesting to watch the daughter explain this film as it even predates her, but she seems in awe of his work. Her understanding of the workings of his mind is riveting - only because there is probably no one else alive today who could give us as much insight on Rossellini's work. The other commentaries are by two Italian scholars who dissect the film and the era - not especially eye-opening, but a good addition to the section nonetheless. The American release of this film had an English language introduction that explained the basis of the film (which was deleted for European audiences), and this lost reel is presented here as well.
As a DVD, this isn't as heavy on the extras as say "Children of Paradise" or even "The Rules of the Game". The extras are light. But I consider them unessential only because the film itself stands so well on its own, it doesn't need any extra propping. It's a clean, straight film with very little doubt in it. I also respected the fact that Rossellini isn't trying to promote any specific religion here - rather, it's an honest attempt at documenting a simpler time in spiritual history when people believed more in a divine presence than they do these days. If anything, this might only serve to increase awareness about the wondrous St. Francis and his merry band of disciples, all of whom were true men of God.
Five Stars. One of the best films of all time.