The flowers of St. Francis (Criterion Collection)
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In a series of simple and joyous vignettes, director Roberto Rossellini and co-writer Federico Fellini lovingly convey the universal teachingsof humility, compassion, faith, and sacrificeof the People's Saint. Shot in a neorealist manner, with monks from the Nocere Inferiore monastery playing the roles of St. Francis and his disciples, The Flowers of St. Francis is a timeless and moving portrait of the search for spiritual enlightenment.
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This film was doomed to be misunderstood, if not dismissed as retrograde in its values, or simply ignored. But Christian values don't cease to exist just because we don't see them practised on the silly box. The evidence is that Rossellini has put them in front of our modern eyes and they still make the same impression on us: they are the right -righteous- values. Times don't change, just as values don't change, only the will of the people to accept or deny them.
The question we face in this movie is: How do we apply these values of innocence, purity, unselfishness, meekness, and charity to modern times? Do they change with the times or do they mean the same as they did in the 13th century? Evidently it's us who have changed not the concepts. Why? Because watching this film Rossellini has made us identify with the Franciscan monks, with their unselfish love and innocence; he has made us see the world -even though a long gone world- with our present day eyes and we have -hopefully most of us- identified with them.
Why aren't there any more people like them today? I think there are. If only they would make movies about them. If at least we agree that those Christian values shown to us in the film are good, immutable and worthy to be pursued yesterday as much as today, we have a premise to work with. Then, the next step would be to conclude that pursuing those values are the right and laudable thing to do; at least to try to do. But on the contrary, we distance ourselves more and more from the ideal using all kinds of childish excuses: it's retrograde, old-fashioned, un-realistic and many other things.
That an ideal is hard to achieve does not make it inadequate. On the contrary, we should strive harder to pursue that ideal. Once -long time ago- it was easy to be poor, to walk barefoot in the mud or in the rain, to sleep on dirt floors in the open, to give everything you had to another person because you had so little that you could -God willing- get it back some time soon. And now, when we have so much, we give so little. How much love can we afford to give away once we've given it to our families, our most intimate friends and ourselves? Not much, the tip. How much stuff can we afford to give away once we have satisfied our lust, materialism and greed and that of our loved ones? Not much, the tip. However today we have much more than yesterday; shouldn't we be giving more too? This film leaves a sad impression of our drifting more and more away from our purpose driven lives.
It teaches by contrast. The message is as clear as Jesus' parables for those who want to understand them. If you laugh at it then you are the laughable. 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.'
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.
P.S. after writing this I read the other reviews. They make clear the range of possible reaction both on the human level and the artistic. I don't have any quarrel with (almost) any of them. I would just say that there is a great deal going on here regarding both the person and film, so if you are just getting acquainted with either aspect, look around a bit before making up your mind for yourself.
Having seen "The Flowers of St. Francis," however, I do not feel as if I have any more insight into St. Francis's legacy than I did prior to the viewing. The film is structured as a series of vignettes--mostly sweet, idyllic, naive and/or comical. This was not a conventional narrative, so the entertainment that you derive from the film comes from how much you appreciate these stories. I found them innocuous enough, a couple were amusing--but ultimately I wished for more illumination.
Having studied Rossellini's intent behind "Flowers," I know it was a personal film for him. He wanted to show glimpses of St. Francis and hint at the appeal and ardor that his followers had. He consciously chose this narrative style to make simple "Franciscan" teaching moments. He was happy with the outcome, and that's why it's important in Rossellini's film oeuvre.
While the film might not be my cup of tea entertainment-wise, it is interesting to fit it into Rossellini's filmography--both as a personal statement and as an evolution of his style. I'll still take "Open City" anyday, but I don't dismiss "Flowers." KGHarris, 10/06.
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