Monday, July 23, 2007


BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON (1972, Italy/England, Franco Zeffirelli, screenplay with Lina Wertmuller, Kenneth Ross, Suso Cecchi d’Amico)
Is it not possible, Holy Father, to live according to the teachings of our Lord? Or have we sinned through presumption? If that be the case, then we would like your Holiness to tell us of our errors.
My dearest son, errors will be forgiven. In our obsession with original sin we too often forget original innocence. Don't let that happen to you. We are encrusted with riches and power. You in your poverty put us to shame.

This is a movie that's easy to dismiss. Director Franco Zeffirelli often gets accused of sentimentality, and this 1972 film and its flower power sensibility plays right into that expectation. Saint Francis is presented as the original hippie, complete with trippy folk songs and a "love will conquer all" pseudo-philosophy that gets little cred in our more savvy and cynical day.

It's too bad BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON has ended up with that reputation, because there's much more to this film than that. If we're embarassed by the movie's simplistic rejection of war and materialism, I wonder how much more uncomfortable we would be with Saint Francis himself? As easy (and tempting) as it may be to discount Donovan's "get high on God" lyrics, it's much harder (but just as tempting) to try and dodge the words of Jesus that Francis constantly quotes. There are aspects of the gospel that fly in the face of our western consumerism, and we're quick to criticize anyone naive enough to take Christ's words at face value. We know better. (Improbably, the script was co-written by seventies iconoclast Lina Wertmuller, with SWEPT AWAY two years in the future and SEVEN BEAUTIES two more. Knowing that lends a certain weight to this film's critique of bourgeois materialism: as wrong-headed as she was, Wertmuller was utterly serious about her radical leftist politics, and it's intriguing to think of her making common cause with Saint Francis!)

One element of the film that comes in for easy criticism is the acting, particularly in the case of the lead character. For the most part, though, this is not a bad performance so much as it’s a performance of its time. Four years earlier, Leonard Whiting did a similar turn in the title role of Zeffirelli's widely-praised ROMEO AND JULIET, complete with the requisite Running Through Fields Of Flowers sequence, neither less nor more cloying than Graham Faulkner as Francesco. That's how Idealistic Young Men were supposed to act and, within the convention of the day, these youthful actors are just fine. There is a certain fey staginess to these performances, which partly comes from the era and partly from the director's continuing background in live theatre and opera. If you can't get past it, this film won't work for you. But for anyone who can, there's a lot to appreciate in Zeffirelli's hagio-pic.

Visually, the film is gorgeous, all vivid colours and eye-catching composition. Francesco's father was a cloth merchant, trading in beautifully dyed, richly textured fabrics from exotic lands: the opulence is tangible, the appeal of such riches undeniable. Assissi's young soldiers gather in the church to be blessed by the Bishop before departing for the Crusades, standing arrayed in cobalt-blue battle dress or sitting astride horses clad in in copper and silver coloured armour, their helmets a kind of death mask, echoed in the jewel-encrusted Christ on the church's ornate crucifix. There is a sustained image of Francis's face covered in cloth which clearly evokes the shroud of Turin. For the first fifteen minutes of the film we repeatedly view him through gauzy fabric: a death-shroud between him and the life he knew. At one point we hover above his canopied bed, a casket made of translucent cloth.

Once Francis has his spiritual awakening – reacting against the bejewelled Christ in the Assissi church – he goes to the fields, and there is a new palette of colours, the natural colours of poppy fields, forested valleys, sheep and sky, photographed with all the vibrant juxtapositions of an impressionist painting. Zeffirelli filmed in the Umbrian hills near the actual birthplace of Saint Francis, and it is illuminating to realize that the saint who so gloried in God's grandeur as revealed in natural things was surrounded by this kind of beauty. The image of the broken down chapel of San Damiano, all grey rubble in the heart of a magnificent green valley, is a marvel of composition – and all of this to frame a single battered and neglected wooden cross, carved with a naked Jesus. This will be Francis's new church, rebuilt by the hands of the poor.

The film culminates, visually and thematically, with Francis's audience with Pope Innocent III in Rome. The grey-habited monks enter a scene of impossible majesty and splendour, the papal court arrayed on either side of the massive hall in sumptuous coloured garments, the mile-high ceiling sparkling with jewels set in gold. In the film's most stunning moment we see lavishly tiled steps, the perspective flattened to create the effect of an intricately tiled wall, down which the Pope descends, clad in white, as if from heaven, to bless the lowly monk.

The most serious problem with this film is its softness, that sentimentality Zeffirelli is often accused of. Where are the stigmata? Where the exhaustion, disease, and despair that poverty, even intentional poverty, brings, even to saints? Where is the aging Saint Francis, betrayed by his successors? Not in this film. If you want those darker colours, you'll have to seek out Liliana Cavani's FRANCESCO, which is included on the Vatican's list of spiritually significant films.

It's hard to discern where the sentimental wishful thinking of a younger time leaves off and the hard realities of a more ancient gospel begin. If this film doesn't quite manage to achieve all it sets out to accomplish, perhaps at least it may cause us to wrestle with some important things – to hold our knowing pragmatism up against the impracticalities of the youthful idealism of Zeffirelli's decade, or maybe even the holy folly of St Francis's century. Or maybe even the radical gospel of Jesus, no more or less appropriate – or practical – in our time than it was in His.


Available at Videomatica


Erich Kuersten said...

Man, that's kind of harsh to hear someone writing spiritually so anxious to stick up for private property. I like private property as much as the next guy and I'm anti-religion but deeply spiritual - frankly I think they're mutually exclusive... and your review points to why. It's not important that one abandons comfort and wealth to be free, but it is important that YOU do, that's the difference no one but Francis could grasp.

Ron Reed said...

I don't quite know what your first two sentences mean, Erich. If I read you right, it seems like you think I'm anxious to stick up for private property? I've re-read the piece, and I can't see where you get that idea. - if that's in fact what you mean. Could you clarify?

Erich Kuersten said...

Whoa - I'm late returning - Sorry Ron, I have no idea where I got that private property angle. I re-read it and think you're spot on. - Erich