Sunday, February 17, 2008

FILM REVIEW - Francis, God's Jester & Brother Sun & Sister Moon

For some curious reason, which I would not like to put down to divine intervention, I've watched two films in the last week based on the life of St Francis of Assisi. The first is a film by Roberto Rosselini, with Frederico Fellini co-writing, called 'Francis, God's jester'. This was originally released in 1950, and filmed in black and white, in the so called Neo- Realist manner, with a troupe of non-professional actors, including thirteen Franciscan monks. I'm not entirely sure what 'neo-realist' means in film language, but I assume from what I see, that its characterised by a certain earthy grubbiness and rough edges. A documentary style that captures life unadorned by affectation or sentimentality. The films presentation in this sense mimics the ethos of its subject matter perfectly.

The film is really a series of episodes, each prefaced by written sentences like 'Francis encounters a leper, and is profoundly shaken', which feels a bit like some archaic throw back to the silent movies. Tarkovsky uses a similar device in his film Andre Rublev, made over twenty years later. Though it occupies quite different spiritual territory,as it follows the struggles and trials of a man who has lost his faith and meaning in life, not found it. Quite what relevance the term 'God's jester' has to the movie, I failed to see. Though this may have been a flaw in the translation, where 'jester' was chosen instead of 'fool'. This would make better sense, as St Francis's asceticism could easily be construed as a foolish idealism, which mocked and flew in the face of traditional society and religious practice at the time. The film tells you little about St Francis's life before his 'conversion'. What it does show you is how strong the master /disciple relationship was between Francis and his male followers. A strong sense of brotherhood and friendship bonds them together in their spiritual endeavour, to live a happier simpler life. Half the time the film focuses on the adventures of an naïve but errant disciple, and not St Francis. So I wasn't at all sure what sort of comment about St Francis, the director Rossellini was really trying to make. What it does quite plainly portray is how rough and ready the Franciscan lifestyle was, at first it was a hard living, inhabiting the same makeshift straw huts as their livestock. Overtime, these become stone built huts the size of large pig pens, eventually developing into a small monastic building. It demonstrated a simple rudimentary asceticism, a life stripped back to its barest essentials. Of the two films it felt the more authentic and spiritually truthful, if a little affected and quirky stylistically .

By contrast Franco Zefferelli's 1972 movie 'Brother Sun,Sister Moon' is an altogether more traditional biographical picture. With all the plush costumes and soft focused, romanticised camera work Zefferelli's big budget could plaster over the story. This English/Italian co-production, was thematically more coherent, but had an opulence and sentiment which frequently over sweetened St Francis's message. It inhabits script wise, a late sixties psychedelic backwash, with excruciatingly saccharin songs from Donovan, full of the vacuous sentiments of peace and love of the time. The largely young and inexperienced English actors, speak with the cut glass RP accents they all emerged from drama school with. This lends a certain unreality to their performances, constantly you are thinking, 'no one has ever talked like this,' unless they were in a Merchant Ivory movie of course. It was frequently left to high calibre actors such as Kenneth Cranham and Alec Guinness to show how even a small part can be fleshed out and given emotional truth, if you have the vocal and physical dexterity available. The young leads of Judi Bowker and Graham Faulkner, were often vapid and unbelievable, lacking the emotional gravitas to hold down their lead roles.

Bad casting is an eternal problem, and has ruined many a half decent film script. These days St Francis would probable be played by Brad Pitt, with Angeline Jolli as St Clare. Now there's a film to look out for, St Francis with great abdominal definition, and real balls, and St Clare with attitude and a pout to die for! Joking aside, I have to say, St Francis must be an enormously difficult person for even an experienced actor to play. If the script is weak, or in this case rather ponderous and predictable, could anything be done to save it from purgatory? How, indeed, do you portray kindness and goodness without it becoming cloying, irritating or risible in these more cynical secularised times? Discuss.

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