Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

Fool for love

(WARNING: story, plot twists, and ending of the film to be discussed in close detail)

Roberto Rossellini doing a film on Francis of Assisi is confronted with a formidable problem: how to adapt a book not just about a saint but one of the more extreme saints in the Catholic canon? How to present someone so obsessed with suffering, so selfless and sacrificing he seems not just improbable but out-and-out insane, not just demented but downright ridiculous in this skeptical, self-centered world?

Easy: you do it as a comedy. 

You collaborate with a writer (Federico Fellini) known for his comic sense, who successfully injected humor into your previous collaborations (Open City; Paisan); you pore over a script full of grotesque characters and blackout sketches--of deadpan slapstick and outrageous dialogue--with something like dismay, and proceed to film it: gingerly, carefully, with the same sober lens you use in your more serious films. 

This film opens in a rainstorm, with Francis (Nazario Girardi) and followers wading through knee-deep puddles--

No, not quite correct; the film actually opens with the famous prayer of Francis praising God's creation of Brother Sun and Sister Moon among others, singling out wind and weather "which bring sustenance to all your creatures," and water for being "useful and humble, precious and chaste." Rossellini then cuts to driving wind and pouring rain; to gusts straining to level anything on two feet, to water being anything but chaste, and to Francis and his followers, making best speed through the meteorological chaos.

This is Rossellini in full-on neorealist mode capturing the misery of Francis' world, down to the bone-chilling mud that sucks at their every step. You might say Rossellini begins with the world as is, and as we follow Francis and come to know not just him but his worldview and the thinking that formed that worldview, a strange thing happens: the weather improves. By film's end we hear nothing but birdsong on the soundtrack, the sun bright the sky clear the landscape breathtakingly pastoral. It's not I submit that Rossellini wants to insulate his innocents in a milder clime but that the film has come to assume Francis' point of view, which can be summarized thusly: the world is breathtakingly beautiful because God made it, and whatever He has made has to be beautiful. Without fuss or effort, without once calling attention to the process, Rossellini pulls us into Francis' head, to peer out through his (possibly deluded, possibly demented) eyes.

Fellini loves his comedians--in his films they're often accompanied by tender, whimsical music; they're shot close enough to capture the impish glint in their eyes; they may suffer and even die, but you somehow know that the filmmaker is telling their story, and they are the heroes of their narrative.

No such identification with Rossellini: he looks at Francis and brothers with something like polite horror, following them at a distance further than medium shot (far enough that you begin to suspect the filmmaker is trying to avoid the stench). On occasion Rossellini will cut to close-up, but only to emphasize a narrative point (yes one can sense the difference between a closeup full of affection and one that's strictly business). He uses far less music than I imagine Fellini would, mostly silence and the kind of background noises you'd hear in a rural setting (birdsong, breeze); on occasion (usually during the chapter titles that begin each vignette) he employs organ music, but so tentative and timid--almost spookily so--you wonder if maybe it wasn't smuggled in by Fellini, along with pages of his script.

Rossellini may view the comedy with suspicion but doesn't hesitate when circumstances call for stronger fare. There's little music in the famed leper sequence, but plenty of dark; we first see Francis prostrate, his hands clapped over his face--laid low presumably by the enormity of man's sins. He hears the rattling of an empty tin; a man emerges from the shadows, and Francis is observing from nearby bushes when Rossellini cuts to one of his rare closeups: the man's face has been half eaten away. Francis again claps his hands to his face--a gesture that he often makes, an emotional response suggesting rejection of the world (which is odd because he's anything but withdrawn; or rather, he tends to reject the world as is, strives to see the world as it should be, opens his eyes, is constantly disappointed). 

Francis grasps the leper's hand; the leper pulls away, walks on. Francis makes an odd gesture, a kind of magic pass in the manner of stage magicians; the leper, somehow entranced, looks back. Francis approaches, takes the leper by the shoulders, hugs him tight; the leper firmly pushes him aside and keeps walking; Francis falls to the ground weeping. 

It's a passage out of the dankest horror film, and the source of much of the horror isn't the leper--though his makeup in half-light is more suggestively textured than it has any right to be--but the sight of Francis hugging him tight; it's the idea of proximity--of tight, intimate contact--with such virulent corporeal corruption that makes the viewer's gorge rise. Rossellini's camera departs the crouched figure and rises to the sky, as if to remind us where the corruption comes from, whose hand it is that took away the man's face; what up to this point looks and feels like horror rises to the level of blasphemy.

Francis doesn't go about his mission alone, nor is he the most hopeless of the monks; he has help, and no one is more assiduous at illustrating the knotty relationship between simplicity and grace than Francis' fellow Brother Ginepro (Severino Pisacane). Where Nazario suggests a man who may be intelligent, who tries his level best to follow his instincts as opposed to his brain--to act the simple man--Severino's Ginepro need make no such effort: he really is simple. He runs into trouble constantly, antagonizing people right and left as he insists on interpreting Francis' orders as literally as possible; when confined to doing cooking duty at home, Ginepro tosses the brothers' entire store of provisions into a gigantic stewpot, in the hopes of freeing up his work schedule enough that he'll be allowed to preach. Francis relents--when someone does that much damage to your order's quarters, there's no point shielding him from the world; he'll sow chaos wherever he goes, however you penalize him. At least when he's elsewhere you might not have to deal with the resulting mess. 

Ginepro is hero of the passage that I consider the most perfect fusion between Fellini and Rossellini's oft-warring sensibilities, the Brother's meeting with Nicolaio, the tyrant of Viterbo (Aldo Fabrizi). It's Fellini versus Fellini as Ginepro the Felliniesque fool comes upon Nicolaio's barbarian warriors, cavorting in their home camp (a kind of monstrously Felliniesque circus posing as a military barracks). Nicolaio's men grab him and pummel him and toss him around in a series of alarming somersaults, during which you can plainly see that 1) Rossellini is not using a stunt dummy, and 2) some of the contortions Severino undergoes look bone-crackingly painful, if not dislocating.

Ginepro's dragged to Nicolaio, and here's where Rossellini comes in: brute confronts fool, which in a Fellini film might be the cue for sadism, even violence, but here--nothing. Nicoliao grimaces and growls, but can't bring himself to follow through. 

Why? You might argue that harming Ginepro would be like harming a child, an act of cruelty so grievous Nicolaio hesitates to commit it--even he has his limits; or that God has cast his protection over the man, and Nicolaio cannot touch him. Fabrizi--great actor, near-unrecognizable from the priest he portrayed in Open City--convinces you that Nicolaio badly wants to mangle his prisoner and is furious he can't, a moment of inexplicable invincibility that leaves one confused: what's happening here? 

Actually, I've a theory: Nicolaio pauses because Ginepro is unimpressed. If the latter had shown any trace of fear or defiance, Nicolaio would have gladly killed him, but no--Ginepro's ignorance is imperturbable, even invincible in its purity. Nicolaio glowers and shoves him around, and it's like shoving a smiling rag doll (I imagine the doll would've smiled less, and put up more of a fight). This confuses and irritates Nicolaio no end, to the point where he puts his thumbs over Ginepro's eyes, preparatory to crushing them--

And then, perhaps, it might have occurred to Nicolaio that watching his thumbs squeeze the man's eyeballs out of their sockets and listening to the screams would have been pointless--that there is more to man, to this man at least, than mere meat and quivering jelly. And that the concept of immateriality--of an immortal spirit, a (dare we say it?) soul--was so startling to the brute that he decide to lift the siege and ponder it further. Viterbo he could always massacre later; this mystery demanded his complete and undivided attention.  

All this suggested without a single word--through the actors' expressions and actions, and the mute gaze of the camera.

Ginepro manages to demonstrate Francis' values in the face of adversity--in this case an all-powerful, all-conquering warlord; in the film's penultimate scene it's left to Francis talking to Brother Leon to distill those values into a single idea, the answer to a crucial question: basically, what act would create perfect happiness? Not power, Francis insists; not the ability to cure the sick, or know the future, or change the hearts of evil men. As if to underline this thesis Francis and Leon witness a robbery and murder, by a man on horseback; when Francis pleads for the mounted man to realize the seriousness of his sin, the rider hands him a coin. Francis weeps, a gesture that recalls his anguish over the leper.

The two brothers come to a house--a mansion, actually, and knock on a door to ask the inhabitants to pray with them. They're rejected, presumably by the homeowner; Francis turns to Leon, throws him a smile of pure mischief (it's as if he knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity) and asks again. This time the homeowner steps forward with cudgel in hand and drives them out into the mud, pounding them over head and shoulder.

It would be a horrifying conclusion to a depressing vignette if it wasn't for Francis' shit-eating grin, the ghost of a suggestion that he deliberately provoked the attack. Rossellini films the beating from a distance: the man standing tall; Francis and companion groveling in a field of mud as pockmarked bleak and cold as the far side of the moon; the man's massive mansion looming over all--and over all (including mansion) falls the softest, loveliest snow you can ever imagine, like a rain of cherub feathers whispering down from on high, like God's blessing made incarnate. With that shot Rossellini marries the nightmare look of his opening (mud and driving rain) with the gentler pastoral scenes (that unbelievably tender snow) and the result is as gorgeous and grotesque--and surreal--as anything in Bunuel. "Bearing every evil and tribulation out of love for Him," Francis cheerfully declares, as he picks himself up from the ooze, "in this alone lies perfect happiness!"

The film ends with Francis scattering his holy men. They are to travel alone, without provisions of any kind. "Where will we go?" his followers ask; Francis has an idiotically simple solution: spin till you're dizzy and fall, and wherever you're pointed is where you'll go. The music of Renzo Rossellini (Roberto's brother) rises in volume, and you're not sure whether to laugh or cry in response: the composition is moving, the sight of men on the ground calling out their destinations ludicrous and pathetic. As the men step forth to meet their various destinies (or dooms) the camera pans upwards, again reminding us who to bless--or blame.

The Flowers of St. Francis is arguably the best possible film to present to atheist and believer alike. The atheist will laugh at the way it punctures the dignity of saints--particularly this one--and points up the ridiculousness of Christian teaching; believers will laugh at the truth found in those teachings, that in the face of a cold, hostile world an emphasis on love and forgiveness, an insistence on applying it in practice does seem ridiculous--but it's a response that doesn't entirely submit to that world, that possibly, just possibly, might be its antidote. Rossellini's genius is in admitting the validity of both viewpoints, strengthening one with the weapons of the other ("Bearing every evil and tribulation"), smuggling one past the hardened defenses of the other, with humor the distracting subversive element. 

Bear in mind that Rossellini made this not long after the end of the Second World War, and that he was probably reacting to the disillusionment and cynicism of that postwar world with a call back to simplicity, to a fool's (or saint's) innocence; in these far more disillusioned and cynical times, that call sounds more inviting than ever. 

Rossellini--and Francis behind him--are hardly the only ones or even the first to do this; throughout history moments of crisis have inspired any number of demands to return to a state of innocence. What makes me trust Rossellini and Francis more is that theirs is a call to a simplicity in spirit, not necessarily intellect, and that Rossellini presents Francis not as a mere fool (like Ginepro) but a deliberate fool, one who struggles and thinks and develops his thinking, and on occasion, when faced with a situation that's beyond him, buries his face in hands in humble submission. 

Rossellini maintains a juggling act between intelligence and innocence, seriousness and silliness--does it more successfully here I think than in any of his other films. On those terms I'd say it's possibly his masterpiece--one of the sneakiest least pretentious great films ever made.

First published in Businessworld, 1.23.14

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