Liliana Cavani made two films about Francis: Francis of Assisi (1966) and Francesco (1989). Both were considered scandalous. The 1966 film reflected the cultural and social changes of the sixties. The social awakening of youth, the breaking away from authority, family, and church. Cavani’s Francis is a rebel going against hierarchy. In the 1966 film, Francis goes against authority, including the authority of his father towards his workers. He has a much more political side than Francis in the 1989 film.
Cavani casts Mickey Rourke for Francesco (1989), the ‘sinner’ of Nine and ½ weeks (1986). It was a great choice, which allows Cavani to portray Francis in a totally different and, perhaps, truer way. Cavani’s film is earthy, muddy, stony. It exudes a provocative physicality. There are bodies from the very beginning: naked bodies, dead bodies, bodies in pain.
Francis undergoes a conversion. He starts as a playboy and after his captivity in the Holy Land, he realises that his dreams of becoming a knight, of glory and honour, were empty. He gives his father’s goods away to the poor. His father takes him to court and there Francis takes his clothes off. In contrast with Zeffirelli’s rather sexy naked Francis, Cavani’s naked Francis is ridiculed. People in court laugh at him. His gesture brings humiliation and humility.
Francis begs and finds his way to the house of one of his former peers. At first he wants to leave, then he enters. They recognise him and tell him to have a bath and join them. They are throwing food around and put some in his bowl. Francis excuses himself and says he has an engagement with his mother and sister. One of his friends follows Francis to his hut. He puts his hand on his nose at the smell of the hut and the dirty people. Francis shows him his ‘mother’, one of the poor who is sick, and his ‘sister’, who has lost a child. Cavani conveys the reality of Francis’ radical poverty: the smell, the food, the rain, and the mud. Muddy Francis prays in the church full of people, where they are seeking shelter from the rain. They praise the rain as beautiful.
Francis knocks down a building. He did not want the order to have any possession, which was unsustainable and led to the legal artifice of the Vatican owning the buildings given to the order for use only. Francis will leave the order and name Pietro Catani his successor. In Cavani’s film, Francis realises the strain that he puts on his followers. In one scene, a brother cannot sleep for hunger. He gives him stale bread and notices that all the others are just as hungry. They joke about the bread being for rabbits who were happy to share it.
Francis doubts himself deeply and separates himself from others. Cavani shows the pain, the harsh reality of radical poverty, and the complexity of Francis. In the end, she shows the stigmata of Francis, his wounds and suffering. It is by far the best portrayal not just of Francis, but of that radical trust in God.