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The Flowers Of St. Francis

The Flowers Of St. Francis

By Joaquin Villalobos • December 29th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS (MOVIE)
Rizzoli Film

Original release: December 14th, 1950
Running time: 89 minutes

Country of origin: Italy
Original language:Italian

Director: Roberto Rossellini
Writers: Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini
Composers: Renzo Rossellini, Enrico Buondonno

Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Gianfranco Bellini, Peparuolo

The Flowers Of St. Francis

Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers Of St. Francis is a paradoxical experience. A film whose mythologized subject matter and strict, matter-of-fact style are at odds with one another, it’s a fictional depiction of the legends and folklore (the ‘Fioretti’ or ‘little flowers’) of Italy’s patron saint that strives for documentary realism.

Despite the contradiction, the film succeeds in creating its portrait of an uncomplicated and benevolent world in servitude to God. Film historian Adriano Aprà puts it best:

“It’s as if the light of the Holy Spirit had settled over Earth once and for all, and Rossellini, almost as if making a documentary, filmed this enchanted, harmonious and serene reality, a reality that, when addressing the issues of his time, he could never find.”

This “reality” still remains unfound. When viewed from today’s world, one cannot help but sometimes see the behavior of St. Francis, Brother Ginepro and their fellow brothers (all played with palpable altruism by real Catholic monks) as just plain dumb. They bumble around in a deserted landscape with childish faces full of wonder, having conversations with seasonal birds à la Snow White.

They exist within a vacuum, cut off from any influence of war and famine of the Middle Ages; highly ideal conditions to develop and sustain such blind, unwavering faith in a transparent deity. However, isolating them from the real world was a conscious decision on Rossellini’s part, serving much more of an aesthetic purpose than a narrative one.
The Flowers Of St. Francis

This decision establishes an environment film historian Peter Brunette sees as “functioning, like medieval art, symbolically, as an emblematic community of the possible.”

What helps make this community seem possible is the film’s lack of traditional narrative structure. There’s no arc here, no internal conflict, and very little external conflict. Rossellini chooses to preserve the Fioretti as unadulterated vignettes, delicately accentuating moments in the fabled life of St. Francis and his Order of Friars Minor.

The strong degree to which each fable construes St. Francis and his crew as divinely holistic is balanced by Rossellini’s inconspicuous, almost invisible photographic style. We see and hear things for what they are. There are no overt, artificial suggestions of a spiritual presence. What Rossellini wants us to take from the film is not a religious awakening but a renewed conviction in good deeds and humanity.

Ultimately, St. Francis is transformed from a hollow, theological figure into a rich, human example of good intention.

Henri Agel describes Rossellini’s technique in The Flowers Of St. Francis as an “aesthetic of insignificance,” a style The Flowers Of St. Francisthat favors poetic moments over rising action and is characteristic of Rossellini’s neorealist beginnings.

It’s this humanization of a cherished holy figure and his unadorned, neorealist representation that makes the film refreshing and even mildly radical. “It was important for me then to affirm everything that stood against slyness and cunning,” Rossellini once said about the film. “In other words, I believed then and still believe that simplicity is a very powerful weapon.”

Unique for a shamelessly religious film, The Flowers Of St. Francis comes across without pretension. It doesn’t contrive to change its viewer’s beliefs, nor does it elevate its subject into supernatural supremacy. St. Francis, and more importantly his message of leading an earnest life, are given a gentle exaltation in a rather convincing documentary fashion. Simplicity will always do the trick.

Joaquin Villalobos

Joaquin Villalobos

Joaquin Villalobos is a burgeoning critic, video editor, screenwriter, and lover of all things film residing in Denver, Colorado. His earliest memory of the cinema is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio at the age of three, an experience sealing his interest in storytelling through imagery. He achieved a Bachelor of Fine Arts at CU Boulder where his work on 16mm and digital video garnered several awards and exhibitions.

His writings on film continue to strengthen his appreciation and understanding of it as both art and commerce. His favorite directors include Pedro Almodóvar, Jean-Pierre Melville, Michael Powell, and Paul Thomas Anderson. More of Joaquin's work can be found at his website, Seen Said and you can follow him on Twitter @SeenSaid.

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