In Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Franco Zeffirelli’s Francis (Graham Faulkner) is a romantic rebellious youth. He echoes the ‘Jesus freaks’ of the sixties. Zeffirelli’s Francis rejects the other-wordly divine, the representations of heaven and hell, to emphasise creation in an almost pantheistic fashion. Francis understood nature as a mirror of God. His religiosity emphasised immanence rather than transcendence. His was not a sentimental love for nature, but a humble realisation of being a creature of God, like the rest of the natural world. Alas, Zeffirelli’s extreme sentimentalism drowns the scenes of colour and golden fields, but it’s not all schmaltz.
In the ‘conversion’ scene, Francis says: “I want to be happy, to live like the birds of the air, to experience the freedom and beauty they experience”. The word ‘happy’ is misleading. The happiness Francis sought was not ‘wellbeing’ or ‘self-realisation’, as many practices such as yoga and meditation are often sold to us today. On the contrary, his was an overcoming of the self. Happiness, as eudaimonia, was a doing, ethics, not feeling good.
In front of the overbearing authority of the Bishop, Francis takes his clothes off. He wants to be “without shoes, without possessions”, detached from ‘economic/instrumental rationality’ that dominates our lives and imposes on us to seek a career, money, prestige. Francis rejects material possession because he is “born of spirit”. He proclaims that he is “born again” and has a new father: God. In the scene, Francis moves his audience. The Bishop covers his nakedness. We should however be mindful of Giotto’s painting and remember that the act of covering Francis was not limited to cover his body, but to declare Francis under the auspices of the church and no longer part of the secular world.
In Francis’ visit to the Pope, Zeffirelli’s presents the Vatican in all its power and splendour. Francis feels his inadequacy. He starts reading in Latin and then stops and denounces the wealth of the Papacy. The Pope is converted. Zeffirelli portrays Francis as the true embodiment of the gospel, against which he pits the travesty of the Vatican encumbered by riches. The Pope is shown as truly humbled to the point of kissing Francis’ feet.