The Flowers of St. Francis
Roberto Rossellini 1950 Italy 87 minutes
Watching The Flowers of St. Francis in this day and age is a perplexing experience. It’s a fictional film depicting the legends and folklore (the ‘Fioretti,’ or ‘little flowers’) of Italy’s patron saint that strives for documentary realism. A film whose mythologized subject matter and strict, matter-of-fact style are at odds with one another, The Flowers of St. Francis still manages to succeed in creating its portrait of an uncomplicated, kind and benevolent world in servitude to God. Film historian Adriano Aprà puts it best:
“It’s as if the light of the Holy Spirit had settled over Earth once and for all, and Rossellini, almost as if making a documentary, filmed this enchanted, harmonious and serene reality, a reality that, when addressing the issues of his time, he could never find.”
This ‘reality’ still remains unfound. When viewed from today’s political climate, one cannot help but sometimes see the behavior of St. Francis, Brother Ginepro and their fellow brothers (all played by real Catholic monks with palpable altruism) as just plain dumb. They bumble around in a deserted landscape with childish faces full of wonder, having conversations with seasonal birds à la Snow White. They exist within a vacuum, cut off from any influence of war and famine of the Middle Ages; highly ideal conditions to develop and sustain such blind, unwavering faith in a transparent deity. However, this was a conscious decision on Rossellini’s part to isolate them from the real world. This serves much more of an aesthetic purpose than a narrative one, establishing an environment Peter Brunette sees “functioning, like medieval art, symbolically, as an emblematic community of the possible.”
What help makes this emblematic community seem possible is the film’s total lack of narrative structure. There is no arc here, no internal conflict and very little external conflict. Rossellini chooses to preserve the Fioretti as unadulterated vignettes, delicately accentuating moments in the fabled life of St. Francis and his Order of Friars Minor. The strong degree to which each fable construes St. Francis and his crew as divinely holistic is balanced by Rossellini’s inconspicuous, almost invisible photographic style. We see and hear things for what they are. There are no overt, artificial suggestions of a spiritual presence. What Rossellini wants us to take from the film is not a religious awakening but a renewed conviction in good deeds and humanity. Ultimately, St. Francis is transformed from a hollow, theological figure into a ‘poor’ man with the best intentions who walks the streets among other poor men.
Henri Agel describes Rossellini’s technique in The Flowers of St. Francis as an “aesthetic of insignificance,” a style that favors poetic moments over rising action and is characteristic of Rossellini’s neorealist beginnings. It is this humanization of a cherished holy figure and his unadorned, neorealist representation that makes the film refreshing and mildly radical. “It was important for me then to affirm everything that stood against slyness and cunning,” Rossellini once said about the film. “In other words, I believed then and still believe that simplicity is a very powerful weapon.” Unique for a shamelessly religious film, The Flowers of St. Francis comes across without a single air of pretension. It does not contrive to change its viewer’s beliefs, nor does it elevate its subject into supernatural supremacy. St. Francis, and more importantly his message of leading an earnest life, are given a gentle exaltation in a rather convincing documentary fashion. Simplicity will always do the trick.