Francis of Assisi was a complex character, who has been too often imagined as the sweet and gentle fool delighting in the singing of birds. In reality, he was a radical and uncompromising figure, and yet also compassionate and pragmatic. The films by Rossellini, Zeffirelli, and Cavani provide a glimpse of Francis as a symbol of radical poverty and humility.
Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) is a neorealist didactic film preaching at its audience. Francis is shown as a simple-minded fool enchanted by nature. Rossellini’s neorealism sought to overcome the artificiality of art and let reality speaks; yet his account of Francis is not faithful to Francis’ life and character. There are however a few aspects of Francis that emerge from this portrayal.
At the beginning of the film, Francis and the brothers seek refuge from the rain in the hut they built. A man is occupying the hut and kicks them out. The brothers find the behaviour less than charitable, but Francis accepts it in good heart and remarks that Providence has finally made them useful to someone. Francis’ God requires full submission and Rossellini stresses Francis’ obedience. In Rossellini’s Francis, there is absolute charity and compassion. Poverty gives joy. Francis comes across as detached from pain, from materiality. It’s almost Zen. When he sees the brothers in the rain, he feels guilty and asks to be punished by one of the brothers, who replies that he can finally see that following Francis means following God. This might seem extreme, yet it is certainly not alien to the religious perspective. Francis puts others first. He does not ‘hold his ground’ demanding his property and rights to be respected. On the contrary, he is ready to sacrifice all property.
When Francis encounters a leper, he is struck by the disfigurement and covers his eyes. Then he seeks to embrace the leper, who at first pushes him away. The leper is the ultimate marginalised ‘other’. Wearing bells to alert people of their coming and to move away, the leper is isolated and banished from community. Francis crosses that boundaries and embraces the one who is outside. This is something I see in my field work when Christians try, to the best of their abilities, to open their doors to the stranger. I have been to shelters for the homeless, where volunteers try to go past the smell to see the human. It is not romantic, which makes it even harder.
In the final scene, Francis encourages the brothers to go out and preach to the world. When asked where they should go; Francis replies they should follow God’s will. When they ask how they would know God’s will; he tells them to spin around until they feel dizzy and fall to the ground. They should go in the direction in which they have fallen. This might seem naïve and foolish; yet it captures a rationality that is opposed to ‘economic’ or ‘instrumental rationality’. Francis’s way is to forget what the world teaches us, to be concerned with career, possessions, status and the steps to obtain such things. He abandons instrumental rationality to be innocent as a child.
The real Francis was a lot tougher than that and more interesting, but even in the awkward film of Rossellini, something true of Francis transpires. Rossellini felt marginalised by Italian film critics. He was interested in characters who were different and did not fit into society. He exaggerates Francis’ simplicity, innocence, and delight in nature to emphasise how different he was.