The figure of St. Francis elicits in the modern mind profound veneration and even profounder incomprehension. Chesterton, in his excellent little sketch of the saint, discusses the difficulties inherent in trying to approach or portray this most heroic and confounding of saints from a modern perspective, and outlines three ways that one might go about it, two of which he rejects.
The first way, Chesterton says, is to portray Francis as "a figure in secular history and a model of secular virtues," ignoring or downplaying his uncompromisingly ascetical and authoritarian religious practice and beliefs. This approach, says Chesterton, is characteristic of many of Francis’s areligious admirers (e.g., Matthew Arnold), and is comparable to trying to write the life of Nansen while omitting the North Pole.
Chesterton’s second way is to go to the "opposite extreme" of focusing on Francis’s religion in a "defiantly devotional" way, with all the "theological enthusiasm" of the first Franciscans. The trouble here, of course, is that such an approach would be impenetrable and unmoving to most audiences today. (Chesterton gives no example of this extreme, but one may see something like it in Leonardo Difilippis’s recent Thérèse.)
The third way, the one that Chesterton attempted, is to "put himself in the position of the ordinary modern outsider and enquirer," one who finds the real Francis at once admirable and incomprehensible, and to begin with what is admirable and go on to try to better understand the incomprehensible.
It is something of a puzzlement that Liliana Cavani’s Francesco takes none of these approaches, or rather that her approach combines the drawbacks of each of Chesterton’s ways and the virtues of none of them, rendering him in the end neither attractive nor comprehensible, neither particularly joyful nor particularly self-accusatory, neither besotted by nature nor enamored of God. There are a few familiar themes: Francis’ concern for the poor and lepers, for example. But there’s no sense of a compelling personality uniting the various facets of the Franciscan mystery into a new and dazzling approach to life and faith.
Perhaps the best way to put it would be to say that Cavani cuts the Gordian knot of how to portray Francis by not portraying him at all, instead telling the story of another man of the same name whose life bears some curious parallels with the Francis of history and hagiography, but whose character, disposition, and deportment are wholly unrecognizable, either as a portrait of St. Francis, or of anyone else we have ever heard or known, or would ever wish to know. In this Cavani’s film perhaps warrants comparison to an almost contemporary film of far greater notoriety about an infinitely more important spiritual figure: Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, released the year prior to Francesco.
The reason this is a puzzlement is that Cavani’s interest in the saint appears to be more than passing. Francesco is her second film devoted to the Poverello of Assisi, following her 1966 film Francesco d’Assisi. Both films were scripted by Cavani herself, each time in collaboration with another writer. (Francesco is widely reported to be based on a Hermann Hesse novel, but the film’s credits make no mention of Hesse, and I have so far been unable to confirm that Hesse ever wrote a novel about Francis. Hesse did devote a number of essays to the saint, and the protagonist of one of his novels, Peter Camenzind, is inspired to try to live like St. Francis, possibly with results as uneven as the protagonist of Cavani’s film.)
How is it, then, that Cavani succeeds in making Francesco neither an attractive hero of secular virtues nor an off-putting champion of spiritual ones? How does she come to make her protagonist off-putting without being otherworldly, earthbound without being attractive?
By what mysterious process has this vibrant human firebrand, this unpredictable, leaping, shouting zealot, been transformed into the sheepish, subdued, self-deprecating cipher we see here played by sighing, shyly grinning Mickey Rourke? What creative miscalculation resulted in a portrait of this most eloquent and flamboyant poet of both the natural and supernatural orders that makes him so tongue-tied and diffident about both?
Even if we throw the history and hagiography of St. Francis to the winds and consider Cavani’s creation as sui generis, why does her study offer neither psychological insight nor religious inspiration, neither period authenticity nor modern relevance? What would possess anyone to make two films about a character who is ultimately, fatally, not that interesting, not worth spending two hours with?
Take the famous episode in which Francis, hauled by his outraged father Pietro Bernardone (Paolo Bonacelli) before the local bishop over the saint’s dispensing of his father’s goods to the poor, strips the clothes off his back and hands them to his stunned father in token of his renunciation of all claim upon and debt to the man who sired him. As played by Rourke under Cavani’s direction, with his clothes (and then the bishop’s cloak) self-consciously clutched over his barely-concealed crotch before the laughing crowd, this breathtakingly dramatic gesture carries all the impact and drama of a mortified grade-school boy taking a dare to pull down his pants in front of the girls. (The sympathy with which Bernardone appeals to his son to return home, assuring him his indiscretions are forgotten, is only one more curious twist. Later, Bernardone sends a message to Francesco listing all the goods he will give to the poor if only Francesco will return home, thus offering to ransom him a second time!)
Then there’s the episode in which Francis rolls naked in the snow (the film is full of male nudity, in itself not out of keeping with the record of Francis’s life, though it’s seldom portrayed with the spirit of freedom and innocence suggested in traditional accounts). As the story is traditionally told, Francis rolls in the snow in response to a suggestion from the devil that he might marry and have children, even mocking the devil by making piles of snow to represent his "wife" and "children." This display, we are told, put the devil to flight, and Francis was victorious over temptation.
In the film, this event is completely transmogrified into a bizarrely lewd scene that almost suggests that rolling in the snow was itself the subject of the temptation, not the means of fighting it. The episode lacks any setup indicating that Francis was being tempted prior to his stripping and leaping into the snow, and his moans as he packs snow over his crotch seem deliberately ambiguous.
The impression that Cavani’s protagonist is actually copulating with the snow is enhanced by the explanation he offers to a pair of approaching brothers: Gesturing to the pillars he has made in the snow, he says, "This one is my wife. That little one is my son. I have been tempted. Forgive me." Instead of triumphing over temptation by abusing his flesh, Francis asks forgiveness for apparently yielding to temptation to commit self-abuse. (Here especially the similarities to Last Temptation are evident.)
Critics of the film have often cited the casting of tough-guy Rourke as a fatal miscalculation, while proponents have ambitiously tried to find value in the unconventional casting, arguing that sainthood is available to all, and therefore anyone can be a saint. The problems with Roarke, however, begin not with his edgy, tattooed image, but with his beefy, muscular body type, so glaringly unlike the familiar slight frame of the historical Francis. (Italian actor Paco Reconti, who plays Brother Rufino, would have been a far more apt choice than Rourke for the lead.) I’m also unsure why neither Francesco nor any of his followers are tonsured, nor why Chiara (or Claire, played by Helena Bonham Carter) goes bareheaded for most of the film instead of wearing the black veil, looking indistinguishable from the friars, not to mention acting and being treated as one of them. (For a more characteristically Franciscan portrayal of Clair’s special status among Francis’s followers, and of everything else, see Rossellini’s excellent The Flowers of St. Francis.)
Hardly a single episode hasn’t been strangely reinterpreted in some way. Francesco’s conversion is now depicted as the result of encountering a contraband vernacular translation of the gospels, dragging the old red herring about the Church’s supposed opposition to such translations into a story that has never, so far as I know, been so afflicted. (In fact, Francis did find early inspiration in a book of the gospels — but it was the Gospel book on the altar at the church of St. Nicholas in Assisi. Quite possibly it was chained there for safekeeping, a medieval practice that is the subject of another anti-Catholic red herring.)
Toward the end of this bizarre curiosity of a film is a particularly bizarre scene in which Francesco and Brother Leo (Fabio Bussotti) bring a written version of the rule for Francesco’s order to Pope Innocent III, who has previously approved an oral version of the rule. The pope, they are told, has died the day before. In fact, they discover the pope not only dead but lying on the floor beside a bier, white and stiff as a department-store mannequin, one clawlike white hand raised over his chest.
Why is the pope’s corpse lying on the floor? Who knows? The film has established that the pope’s death was already known, so it’s not like Francesco and Leo were the ones to discover him. Who would leave a dead pope lying on the floor? Perhaps he fell off the bier somehow?
At any rate, Francesco and Leo pick up the corpse and place it on the bier. Then Francesco whispers something in the corpse’s ear and instructs Leo to give the written rule to the dead pope. "Do you think just because he’s dead, he can’t read?" Francesco asks. If I had been in Leo’s place, I would have replied, "Maybe he can, but he why should he need me to give it to him? And even if he does read it, he can’t very well approve it now anyway, can he?"
Is this meant as history? Theology? Psychological character development? Poetic symbolism? Who knows? Perhaps the film makes more sense at its original 150-minute running length (the U.S. DVD version I’ve seen has been edited to only 119 minutes), though I can’t imagine any conceivable additions that would save the film from being a disaster.
Passing comparisons to The Last Temptation of Christ notwithstanding, Cavani’s film hasn’t attracted a great deal of attention, and the length at which it has here been considered is wholly disproportionate to its significance. The reason for this level of attention is that Francesco is one of the fifteen films named on the 1995 Vatican film list in the category of "Religion."
As a point of reference regarding reasonable and well-informed Catholic opinion with respect to world cinema, the Vatican film list is an excellent resource, but it is neither infallible nor even authoritative. Opinions may legitimately differ in such matters, but reasonable and well-informed Catholic opinion may well regard the inclusion of Francesco as the most glaring sign of the list’s fallibility.
Rossellini doesn’t cater to contemporary sensibilities by reinventing Francis as a mere eccentric free spirit, a medieval flower child, such as we find in Zefferelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Francis remains challenging to modern audiences here, his childlike spirit joined to insistence on strict religious obligation and ultimately to zeal for evangelization.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.