Like its protagonist, Saint Joseph Desa of Cupertino, throughout much of his lifetime and most of the film, Edward Dmytryk’s 1962 film The Reluctant Saint is a modest affair that has attracted little attention, but has more to offer than meets the eye.
Critics were not kind to the film at the time of its release. As Les and Barbara Keyser note in Hollywood and the Catholic Church, a review in Esquire complained that star Maximilian Schell’s clumsy, buffoonish behavior seemed more slapstick than saint-like, and a writer for Saturday Review dismissed the humorously uplifting final shot as a gag shot worthy of Laurel and Hardy.
Such complaints bespeak a misunderstanding of the film nearly as notable as the misunderstanding of its subject by his contemporaries. It is true that The Reluctant Saint, though a pious, respectful production, is marked by an earthy humor and an absence of the dignified reverential gravity typical of devout productions of Hollywood’s Golden Age. For example, the heroine of The Song of Bernadette was also an unlettered peasant who was misunderstood and mistreated by her neighbors — but she always maintained her composure and equanimity, and never looked silly or was at a loss. And while Becket is full of humor, most of it belongs to Peter O’Toole’s choleric Henry II, not Richard Burton’s ultra-serious archbishop.
By contrast, consider The Reluctant Saint’s very first scene, almost its first shot, in which Giuseppe, falling out of the pack of young classmates among which he has just emerged from the school, produces a bird he has evidently been carrying inside his jacket, cradles it lovingly in his hand, and releases it — then looks at his palm in chagrin and wipes it on his jacket. One can hardly imagine a bird-poop gag at the expense of any other Hollywood saint.
Though very different in mood from The Song of Bernadette or Becket, The Reluctant Saint is not therefore frivolous or unserious. English dialogue notwithstanding, it feels in certain respects less akin to, say, the previous year’s Francis of Assisi by Michael Curtiz than to Italian neorealist Roberto Rosselini’s lovely 1950 film The Flowers of Saint Francis — a film that, in keeping with its original title, Francesco, giullare di Dio (“Francis, God’s Jester”), offers a gently comic depiction of the early Franciscans as slow-witted “holy fools,” much given to stumbling in their efforts to follow in Francis’ footsteps.
In fact, given St. Joseph’s Franciscan context, The Reluctant Saint could almost be viewed as a spiritual sequel of sorts, or at least a follow-up, to The Flowers of Saint Francis. Filmed on location in the Lazio region of Italy with a supporting cast of Italian players, The Reluctant Saint evokes an authentic sense of time and place eluding most period productions of Golden Age Hollywood. Like Rossellini’s films and other works of Italian neorealism, The Reluctant Saint offers an Italian peasant milieu rich with authenticity and persuasive detail.
From the opening scene in the cobbled town square with its central fountain and the blacksmith’s shop, where people mill about rolling barrels or wheelbarrows and women walk with baskets or other burdens on their heads, to the disarray of the farmyard and the thick stone walls of Giuseppe’s home, to the fields of the nobleman where Giuseppe comes to grief driving a horse-drawn plow, The Reluctant Saint never feels staged or inauthentic. Few similar Hollywood productions, even when shot on location like The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, manage a comparable sense of realism. Adding to the authentic Continental feel is the effective score by Italian composer Nino Rota (La Strada, 8½, Il Gattopardo — all Vatican list films, incidentally).
Maximilian Schell plays Giuseppe with his shoulders in a perpetual hunch, as if half braced for a blow that might come at any moment, from any direction. Schell, who won the Academy Award the previous year for his fiercely intelligent defense attorney in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, projects only sweet simplicity, uncomprehending patience and uncomplicated joy as Guiseppe. There is little sign here of the “hot and irascible temper” noted by the old Catholic Encyclopedia, though in one scene he does drive a bitter rival out of the monastery stables for which they are alternately responsible. But the saint’s childlike innocence, resignation to abuse and spiritual ecstasies are the essence of the film’s portrayal.
Giuseppe is a defenseless sheep, bereft of serpentine wisdom. Or rather, a donkey. “Brother Ass,” St. Francis half-jokingly called his body. It is an epithet that Giuseppe embodies in mind and body. Appropriately, donkeys are a recurring motif in the film, starting with the very first scene in the town square, where a donkey stands at the door of the blacksmith’s shop where two boys play a cruel prank on Giuseppe. In the same scene, another donkey carrying a load of sticks passes in front of Giuseppe and the nun speaking to him, momentarily obscuring the subjects of the shot; in the next scene, we see a donkey with a similar burden bound to its back at the farmhouse of Giuseppe’s mother, and there is the donkey that is stolen from Giuseppe when he and the other postulants are first sent out to beg.
This asinine imagery is explicitly paid off when Giuseppe is witnessed miraculously levitating in the stable in a prayer of ecstasy. The friar who sees him, the hunchbacked stable hand Gobbo (Carlo Croccolo) who has been one of Giuseppe’s chief tormenters, runs to report the miracle to the rest of the friars, and reports that Giuseppe’s is flying “like an angel.” When the skeptical Don Raspi (Ricardo Montalban) questions Giuseppe about this report, he shakes his head with a sheepish smile. “No,” he says radiantly, “like a donkey!”
Attentive viewers may notice that the first time Giuseppe flies, kneeling in the stable before his beloved broken head of the Madonna statue, lips moving wordlessly in rapturous prayer, it is the braying of a donkey that causes Giuseppe to become aware of his situation. Reportedly, animals could sense the miraculous aura around the historical Giuseppe; in this scene, the donkey’s raucous bawling gives voice to the prayer that the donkey-like Giuseppe offers in silence.
Going against conventional Hollywood wisdom, Dmytryk takes his time getting to the miracles for which Joseph of Cupertino is known. A friend and fellow critic maintains a rule of thumb that all the rules of a story, especially extraordinary or exceptional ones, should be established by the end of the film’s first act, usually within the first half-hour. Dmytryk lets over an hour expire with no sign of anything miraculous, or possibly even extraordinary, regarding Giuseppe, before the first levitation incident in the stable.
This could be regarded as a dramatic mistake — or it could be a strategic decision to treat Giuseppe’s miraculous feats with the same lightness and even carelessness with which Giuseppe himself regards them. Once he gets over the initial shock, it seems that Giuseppe finds it neither particularly important or even particularly interesting that he sometimes levitates in ecstasy while meditating on holy things; it is the holy things themselves that matter, not his response to them.
This holy nonchalance to Giuseppe’s miraculous experiences is perfectly expressed, with typical humor, in the coda that the Saturday Review critic found so frivolous. As the Franciscans process along the countryside chanting, Giuseppe begins to float upward, whereupon Don Raspi — until the end the most violent of Giuseppe’s skeptics, the one who insisted that he was possessed by the devil and performed the climactic exorcism on him — merely reaches out, without breaking stride or ceasing to sing, and takes hold of Giuseppe’s robe to prevent him drifting off … and the procession continues, with Giuseppe tethered like a parade float by Don Raspi’s grip on his robe. (The VHS edition of the film omits this coda, probably in deference to those who, like the Saturday Review critic, failed to appreciate its holy lightheartedness.)
More important than Giuseppe’s flying, in the film’s schema of values, is the saint’s humble love of obscurity and of animals, both of which mark him as a true son of Francis. Mocked and misused outside the monastery, Giuseppe continues to be misjudged and mistreated by his fellow monastics who lack this true Franciscan spirit, particularly by his chief nemesis Don Raspi and his rival Gobbo.
As played by Montalban, Don Raspi is poised, confident, eloquent — everything that Giuseppe is not. He is also, obviously, proud and attached to his dignity, and like many religious antagonists in pious films is offended by the suggestion that someone of Giuseppe’s simplicity and lowliness might be God’s favored vessel. Gobbo, the peevish, vindictive stable hand, hates the smelly, messy barnyard work — so much so that he refuses to believe that Giuseppe is first overjoyed to be assigned to the stables, and then crestfallen when he is ultimately removed from his favored office and the stables reassigned again to Gobbo. In the same way, the prospect of begging makes other faces fall but Giuseppe’s face light up. One man’s dream is another man’s nightmare, and vice versa.
Giuseppe’s sanctity is not merely a matter of humility and simplicity, but also of charity, as seen in a key sequence in which, like Brother Juniper in Rossellini’s Flowers — who regularly returns naked from begging, having given away his robe to another beggar — Giuseppe gives what little he has to a nursing mother at the roadside.
Until the arrival of Bishop Durso (Akim Tamiroff), the vicar-general of the Franciscan order, Giuseppe’s simplicity and innocence are consistently misunderstood. At first, the prelate’s inspection of the stables looks to be only the latest disaster in Giuseppe’s hapless existence: The disarray that so worried Giuseppe the previous day appears scarcely improved. Worse, Giuseppe is then discovered asleep under a pile of hay — where it turns out he has been caring for two newborn lambs.
Then the other shoe drops: Despite his high office, the bishop is not only a true Franciscan, but a peasant son of a farming family who sometimes finds his office as burdensome as Giuseppe would. At once this rustic hierarch sees that he has found the monastery’s most deeply Franciscan soul, while Giuseppe for his part has no idea that he has found a lifelong friend and advocate.
Durso is moved to quote Jesus’ retort to the Pharisees and scribes from Luke 15 (“What man of you, having a hundred sheep…”). Luke, of course, is the Gospel of the shepherds, the poor, the outcast, and the pastoral imagery of this passage speaks to Giuseppe in words he can well understand. Luke 15 becomes Giuseppe’s favorite scriptural text, and when at Durso’s direction Giuseppe is forced to study for ordination he learns scarcely anything else.
That his examination for the subdiaconate turns out to hinge this very passage could be regarded as a mere Gumpian farcical coincidence — but by the time he returns to be examined for the priesthood, the cat is out of the bag: Giuseppe’s first flight occurs in the interim, and so we see the hand of God at work when it turns out that the candidates for priestly ordination are to be examined by none other than the beloved Bishop Durso.
Dmytryk typically shoots conversations with Giuseppe in right profile looking left, with his (often hostile) interlocutors — his mockers in the opening scene, his mother, the panel inquiring into reports of Giuseppe’s flying — in left profile facing right. By placing Giuseppe on the right with those speaking to him on the left, Dmytryk suggests Giuseppe’s passiveness as a target of the projections, intentions and actions of others (since there is a preference for left-to-right action in Western cinema, paralleling the direction in which we read).
This strategy is most notably utilized during the long exorcism scene, in which Giuseppe, kneeling in silent prayer and fettered to the floor, is shot in right profile looking left with the light of the torches falling full on his face — the picture of passive helplessness — while Don Raspi stands above him in left profile looking right, reciting the words of the ritual with the light behind him casting the whole left side of his face in shadow.
Then, when the ritual is over and Don Raspi turns to leave, the schema is dramatically overturned: Giuseppe’s chains fall away as he rises from the floor, and a blazing miraculous light falls full on the face of Don Raspi, dazzling him as he drops to his knees, now in right profile looking left, as helpless as St. Paul knocked off his horse.
Vivid details add immediacy to many scenes, from the cat in the window watching the bird Giuseppe releases in the opening sequence to Giuseppe hastily wrapping a morsel of food in his hat and then rolling his hat into his sleeve when called for his subdiaconate interview. Watch also for slow fades used to highlight the emotion of a poignant moment, particularly the lingering transition in which Giuseppe learns of his father’s death.
In a film in which every supporting player shines, The Reluctant Saint’s funniest moments undoubtedly belong to Lea Padovani as Giuseppe’s formidable mother, a woman who is the terror of every man who knows her, from Giuseppe to her shiftless husband to her brother, the kind-hearted abbott of the monastery (Harold Goldblatt).
My favorite scene, though, belongs to Tamiroff as Bishop Durso, who has been wearily nodding while listening to a learned discourse on the Holy Trinity, and slips out into the night to enjoy a low-key chat by a fire with Brother Giuseppe. Giuseppe’s attempt to explain the Trinity may illuminate nothing, but the incident itself is an icon of charity and a moment of grace in the life of an important man great enough to remember how simple he is, with sense enough to crave simplicity and communion above accolades and honors of men.
If “The Flying Nun” is a bit too, well, flighty for some tastes, consider another 1960s production about a consecrated religious — a real-life one in this case, and a canonized saint — given to slipping the surly bonds of earth.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.