Saturday, January 31, 2009


This film of the early life of St. Francis of Assisi begins with young Francis (Graham Faulkner) coming home from the Crusades; the rumor is that he has turned coward, but he arrives in a state of near-total collapse with a dangerous fever. While his mother (Valentina Cortese) tends to him, we get some fractured flashbacks of his days before the wars as a son of privilege in the village of Assisi. When he finally recovers, he seems to have had a major personality change, made plain in a scene in which he scampers across a roof chasing after a bird. He catches it, holds it, and lets it go, and then teeters on the edge of the roof while a flock of birds swarms around him. He decides to give up all his possessions and live in poverty as a beggar. His father hopes taking him to church will help, but Francis has a meltdown, screaming "No!" at the giant crucifix and eventually stripping himself naked in the public square in the presence of the Bishop, saying that he has been "born again." The Bishop tells him that he is subverting "the established order," though he does seems to have at least a bit of sympathy for Francis' innocent idealism. Francis goes off to live in a ruined chapel and, with the help of a small band of followers, mostly poor and crippled, rebuilds it. That winter, his three closest friends return from the Crusades and, one by one, they decide to join him. Also joining him is Clare (Judi Bowker), a young woman he fancied in his pre-war days. When the bishop has their church set on fire, Francis and his friends go to Rome to see the Pope (Alec Guinness) to find out why the Church opposes them so violently. In the film's climax, the muddy, barefoot Francis enters the outlandishly ornate cathedral and lectures the Holy Fathers on the Gospels (the lilies of the field neither toiling nor spinning, etc.). He is run out of the church, but the Pope has second thoughts, calls him back in, and gives him his blessing by kissing Francis' feet

This film is derided by many as a "hippy-dippy," flower-child film, and the fact that songs by Donovan, the archetypal hippie troubadour, crop up occasionally only reinforces that label. There is a very 60's vibe to Francis's philosophy, presented as a rebellion against "the establishment"--the church, the state, the family. But I found the movie to be quite enjoyable, and much less dated than I was expecting it to be--no day-glow colors, no light show visuals, no druggy hazes, and fairly standard cinematography (though most of the men do have hippieish hair and/or beards), and even Donovan's songs sound more ancient folkie than hippie. Faulkner is very handsome and gives a solid, charismatic performance despite the fuzziness of Francis' character as written. Bowker, wispily lovely, has almost nothing to do, and is in fact absent from the film for long stretches. Supporting players Leigh Lawson and Kenneth Cranham as Francis' buddies have much more screen time. Guinness gives one of the oddest performances of his career as the Pope--I can't tell if the Pope indeed has had some kind of spiritual epiphany, or if he's crazy like a fox (it's suggested that the Pope's actions have a practical, political basis in that Francis may be able to bring the poor back into the faithful fold), or just a somewhat bug-eyed loony. The movie, shot on location in Italy, is almost always lovely to look at. I find this a much more interesting film than the early 60's Hollywood version of Francis' life with Bradford Dillman. This one is much better than its reputation suggests. [DVD]

No comments: