Rossellini’s work here is masterful, shot in a neorealist if also painterly style, that captures the purity and spirituality of ascetic Roman Catholicism in the early 13th century.
Dir. Roberto Rossellini
1950 | Italy | Drama | 87 mins | 1.33:1 | Italian
Not rated – likely to be PG
Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Gianfranco Bellini, Peparuolo
Plot: The film dramatizes about a dozen vignettes from the life of St. Francis and his early followers.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Religion, Spirituality
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion DVD
First Published: 9 Nov 2016
When Roberto Rossellini was making the most religious film of his career, he was then chest-deep in an extramarital affair with Ingrid Bergman, who was also married at that time. It still is one of the great scandals in film history—almost 70 years on and it remains a bewildering chapter in Rossellini’s life.
How could one make a spiritual film about ascetic Roman Catholicism when the filmmaker blatantly and publicly commits adultery? The Flowers of St. Francis, already an intriguing work, is made more fascinating in this context.
Following the titular character and his disciples, in particular the simple-minded Ginepro, who gets more screen time than St. Francis, the film is made up of a series of short and random vignettes, each preceded by a brief description of what will happen.
Such a structure is inherently uneven, as Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) would also attest, privileging some segments over others, and the sum is usually smaller than its parts.
The subject matter of The Flowers of St. Francis, however, neuters this effect. Rossellini’s film is a highly spiritual piece, and arguably far purer a work about religion than any that came before it. The sum, in this case, is a feeling of bliss at the end of the experience, marked by a desire to want to be a good person, regardless if you are religious or not.
“It’s better to preach by example than by words.”
There’s no purported evangelism by Rossellini, and the values espoused by St. Francis are expressed in a non-preachy way. Such is the matter-of-fact-ness of the conversations between these characters (mostly played by real-life monks from the Nocera Inferiore Monastery) that, together with the natural location shooting, suggests a strong neorealist style, as if it was shot centuries ago.
Rossellini was, of course, one of the trailblazers of the neorealist movement back in the ‘40s with his war trilogy—Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948).
That being said, The Flowers of St. Francis is also a painterly and poetic film, with visuals that are inspired by the paintings of that time. The opening segment, shot in heavy rain, echoes Kurosawa’s Rashomon, also made in the same year.
As the monks traverse through the storm and get shut out by a mean occupant with a roof over his head, we learn the sacrifice and strength of these people. And in the film’s standout segment, where Ginepro faces a murderous tyrant, we learn the true meaning of courage. These values are certainly important and universal.