The Flowers of St. Francis: God’s Jester

Aug 23, 2005

One of the biggest celebrity scandals of the early postwar period erupted when Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who had become world famous with his 1945 neorealist classic Open City, and Ingrid Bergman, the Hollywood star of such wholesome films as The Bells of St. Mary’s—both married to other people—fell madly in love while shooting Stromboli on a remote Italian island, in 1949. Ironically, at the very height of the affair, while Bergman and Rossellini were being condemned on the floor of the United States Senate for crimes against morality, Rossellini was busy making the most overtly religious film of his life.

The Flowers of St. Francis—or, Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Jester), to give it its full title in Italian—is a delicate, fascinating hybrid, a film that is self-consciously, almost militantly, naive, and, as such, something of an anomaly in Rossellini’s body of work. Never again would his films attain the directness, simplicity, even purity that is so gloriously on display here, a work poised between the theological and the historical, between the Rossellini who emerged from neorealism into the full-blown spiritual crisis manifested in The Miracle, Stromboli, and Europa ’51, all set in postwar Italy, and the latter-day director whose abiding interest was in the depiction of history. Those later works often took religious subjects, but unlike in Acts of the Apostles, Augustine of Hippo, and The Messiah, Rossellini in The Flowers of St. Francis is less concerned with creating a portrait of a particular historical figure than he is with exploring the nature of spirituality, specifically, of “Franciscanism” itself and its impact on the medieval world.

His effort to capture this spiritual essence is astonishingly holistic, with every aspect of the film’s narrative and visual style seemingly serving that end. Fundamentally, Rossellini refuses to single out Francis, thus decentering him and insisting on his status, first and foremost, as a member of a group. Similarly, while some critics have complained that Brother Ginepro, the foolish monk around whom many of the unconnected episodes revolve, is accorded too much importance in the film, at the expense of Francis, it is clear that this is a crucial and conscious tactic.

Related to this question is Rossellini’s clear didactic purpose in making the film. As in his other work of this period, he was concerned with the despair and cynicism facing postwar Europe, and unashamedly offered Saint Francis and his philosophy as an answer, as a way back to an essential wholeness. The “message” of The Flowers of St. Francis is stubbornly old-fashioned, as Rossellini told students at the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia, in the early sixties: “It was important for me then to affirm everything that stood against slyness and cunning. In other words, I believed then and still believe that simplicity is a very powerful weapon . . . The innocent one will always defeat the evil one. I am absolutely convinced of this. And in our own era we have a vivid example in Gandhism . . . Then, if we want to go back to the historical moment, we must remember that these were cruel and violent centuries, and yet in those centuries of violence appeared Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Siena.” Obviously, it took courage for Rossellini to offer such transparently “retrograde” values to a modern audience, and part of the film’s radicalism lies in its fearless exposure of the director’s vulnerable idealism.

Even more radical is Rossellini’s formal technique, which relies overtly on discontinuity, fragmentation, and a productive tension between the extremes of realism and stylization. In narrative terms, The Flowers of St. Francis is utterly unconventional, with the sketch, the vignette, and the illuminating anecdote favored over a doggedly linear exposition. There is almost no plot, and scarcely more characterization. Aside from Ginepro’s violent encounter with Nicolaio the Tyrant and his men, we get little more than humorous misunderstandings about needing a pig’s foot to make soup (Ginepro “convinces” a still-living pig to donate its appendage); Francis gently telling birds to be quiet so he can pray; and the loving, simple preparations for the visit of Sister Clare. The individual scenes from The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Life of Brother Ginepro—story collections published after Francis’s death—that are chosen for “dramatization” do not seem inevitable, nor do they really cohere (as some have complained), but, then again, they were never meant to. Rather, an atmosphere of sanctity is created and a minimalist structural system of opposites elaborated, in a denuded and thoroughly unrealistic setting. In this atmosphere, narrative is continually defeated in favor of the incomplete, the aleatory, and the suggestive poetic anecdote that is, narratively, a dead end but that illuminates a stylized world of symbolic values. Henri Agel described this technique as Rossellini’s “aesthetic of insignificance” or “banality,” and it points toward the challenging antinarrativity of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films of the early sixties. History—or better, historiography—on the other hand, is linear, fully elaborated, logical, supremely rational, and above all, coherently narrated. Thus Rossellini must necessarily reject its methodology to remain true to the “divine madness” that afflicted Saint Francis and his followers and their crazy world of faith.

One of the most interesting things about the film is that it seems to occupy the same kind of ambivalent, complicated medieval space, simultaneously realistic and stylized, that is the hallmark of Dante’s Divine Comedy (and that Ingmar Bergman was also to capture seven years later, in The Seventh Seal). On the one hand, the film is imbued with the rough graininess of neorealism, which allows us to feel the monks’ scratchy tunics and the drenching rain. Yet, at the same time, The Flowers of St. Francis flaunts its visual stylization. Rossellini used the art of the period as a kind of model or template to teach us how to watch the film, very consciously shooting it with the severe simplicity of medieval art. For example, at one point, Francis lies down in the mud so that the friars can walk on him and thus humiliate him; the arrangement of the bodies and the overall composition of the frame seem clearly taken from Giotto’s depiction of Saint Francis’s death, in the Arena Chapel, in Padua. Throughout, we see the monks in almost total isolation from any “real” world, functioning, like medieval art, symbolically, as an emblematic community of the possible. The shots are continually flattened to eliminate perspective, thus putting man and nature on the same level and suggesting the two-dimensionality of the highly symbolic space of medieval art, before the conquest of “realistic” Renaissance perspective, which entails an entirely different worldview. This pictorial flattening creates a kind of minimalist paysage moralisé out of the monks’ simple community, a stylized, antirealistic locus of genuine Christian kindness and joy.

Against this quiet, spatially uncomplicated space, Rossellini sets Nicolaio the Tyrant’s camp, the only time in the film that we venture beyond the enclosed, protected world of the religious community. Here in the camp is the discontinuous world: noisy, rude, violent, marked by continual frenzied movement to and fro, it stands in vivid contrast to the simplicity that has occupied the screen up to this point, and the spectator is visually and aurally overwhelmed. The frame is crammed with trees, tents, and rough, shouting warriors who engage in bleeding contests, all of this clashing violently with the open, loose framing of the bare territory of the brothers. When Ginepro is brought before Nicolaio, the structural contrast is echoed in the juxtaposition of Ginepro’s simple robe and the tyrant’s enormous, comic suit of armor, which can be put on or taken off only by an entire retinue of followers operating an elaborate pulley system. The values of simplicity and the “essential” are clearly favored over those of the complex and the superfluous.

Most important here is the choice of Aldo Fabrizi, a well-known actor, to play the part of Nicolaio. Many critics have seen his histrionic performance as the film’s chief fault, but it may be one of its virtues. His acting—overacting, really—is precisely what is necessary to point up the structural opposition between the brothers’ simplicity and Nicolaio’s worldliness. His performance is purposely foregrounded, made self-reflexive, and thus serves, in itself, as part of the film’s meaning. By this means, the film’s recurring structural opposition is carried to a kind of metalevel, beyond the plane of the story to its mode of telling.

The rest of Rossellini’s career-long technical, emotional, and thematic trajectory can be summed up, if reductively, in this movement from the medieval world of Saint Francis to the Renaissance, not only in terms of their visual aspects but in their distinct ways of looking at the world. At this period of his life, the director was concerned with the mystical, the personal, the religious, and the emotional—in short, the medieval. Later, beginning tentatively with India (1959), Rossellini would move resolutely toward the factual, the rational, and the privileging of scientific knowledge, a movement that would reach its zenith in the no less sublime, but utterly different, Renaissance figure Leon Battista Alberti, of The Age of the Medici (1973).

Peter Brunette is Reynolds Professor of Film Studies at Wake Forest University and the author of books on Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and, most recently, the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.