A seemingly simple film that reveals deeper levels of profundity upon further reflection, Roberto Rossellini's "The Flowers of St. Francis" is basically a series of vignettes that takes Italian neo-realism back to the 13th century.
Using non-actors in almost every role (including a group of Franciscan monks as Francis and his followers), Rossellini succeeds in humanizing a man who is perhaps the most beloved and revered of all the Catholic saints. As Father Virgilio Fantuzzi tells it in one of the DVD's special features, at a Paris screening of the film for Monsignor Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII told Rossellini, "Poor man, you don't know what you've done." By "demolishing iconography in film," as Fantuzzi explains it, it might be said that "The Flowers of St. Francis" paved the way for films like Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" and even Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."
In "The Flowers of St. Francis," the monks that surround their spiritual leader seem almost comical in their naïveté. Francis does not scold them for their mistakes; he merely leads by example, shunning wealth and comforts for a simple monastic life praising God and all His creations. Brother Ginepro and the simpleton Giovanni are given almost as much if not more screen time than Francis. In Ginepro we see ourselves, struggling to attain enlightenment.
A few of the vignettes are less successful than others, such as when Brother Ginepro "asks" a pig to lend his foot to a hungry brother, and so even at 87 minutes, "The Flowers of St. Francis" feels a little long.
Another of the stories seems completely at odds with the rest of the film. As Ginepro goes out to preach, he runs afoul of Nicolaio the Tyrant, played by Italian actor Aldo Fabrizi. Nicolaio's camp is full of rowdy marauders, and Ginepro is thrown about like a rag doll. Yet he remains calm, and stands Nicolaio down. It's a much different setting than the rest of the film, which takes place within the monastic life of St. Francis, and the scene seems a parable of our chaotic world. Still, Fabrizi's histrionics seem out of place in the movie, and he is less menacing than ridiculous.
The DVD of "The Flowers of St. Francis" includes the aforementioned interview with film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, as well as two other interviews that help frame the film in its historical context, and within Rossellini's career. There is an interview with film historian Adriano Aprà, and an English language interview with Isabella Rossellini, who discusses her father's work. The DVD case also includes a 36-page booklet featuring scholarly essays and reprinted writings by Roberto Rossellini. The 55-year-old movie isn't as fabulous looking as other Criterion discs, but thankfully the black-and-white medium is more forgiving than color when it comes to dirt and scratches.
Acclaimed by film and religious scholars as one of the great religious films, "The Flowers of St. Francis," has been largely forgotten by the public. Those in for a straight telling of the life of St. Francis may be disappointed, and I must admit I was a little taken aback by the style of the film, but ultimately found some of its themes inspiring.