“Francesco, giullare di Dio”
Second in a series of four films about Francis of Assisi
Director: Roberto Rossellini. NR. Year: 1950. Rating: Length: 75 min.
Italian neorealist film director Roberto Rossellini co-wrote the script with Federico Fellini, adapting two early works, The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Life of Brother Juniper. The first is a 14th century novel with 77 short chapters and the second is a collection of fanciful tales about Francis’ associate who most deserved the title “Holy Fool.” The film includes 9 of these tales, all of them exhibiting a childlike simplicity laced with humor. As would be expected of a neorealist filmmaker, this is a black and white work very different from the lush color cinemaphotography employed in Zeferelli’s movie.
The film begins with the monks returning home at night from Rome where the Pope had blessed their Rule. It is raining, but their hut is occupied by a man and his donkey who drives them out into the night rain. Instead of being upset and vowing to regain their shelter, they rejoice at their plight, seeing it as proof that they have a calling to suffer for Christ.
The film’s nine “chapters” are like parables, concluding with a moral or teaching. In the first while the brothers are rejoicing at the gift of a set of bells for the hut they are building for themselves, Br. Ginepro is found naked in the bushes. In his zeal he has given away to the poor even his tunic. Francesco tells him to ask for permission the next time. In the next tale Francesco offers his famous prayer, and in the third the friars gather flowers for the dinner at which their master is joined by Clare and three of her sisters. Other stories involve a pig’s foot which amusingly lands Br. Ginepro in trouble with the owner of the pig, Francesco’s adoration of a leper, two stories again about Br. Genipro—how he was allowed out of his kitchen to preach when he cooked enough food for two weeks, and how during his preaching mission he narrowly escaped execution by the tyrannical war lord Nicoalio. In the eighth chapter Francesco provides an experiential answer to the question of how one can be truly happy that is in stark contrast to what most of us would expect, and in the last story when the friars are to part company and go out to preach the gospel, Francesco tells them to spin around rapidly in circles. Whatever direction they land when they fall, that is the way they are to go. They sing a joyful song as they set forth.
There is a whimsy and gentle humor that fits well the Italian title of the film Francis, Jester of God. This black and white film is to Saint Francis what Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is to Jesus of Nazareth—a warm, simple story told without any of the embellishments of the art of filmmaking. The director, advised by two priests, used just one professional actor (for the portrayal of the war lord), all the other characters were played by real Franciscan monks. It did poorly at the box office, but since then has gained quite a following among film connoisseurs. I would not call it the masterpiece that some maintain it is (it is on such a list compiled by the Vatican), but its whimsical humor certainly delivers us from any tendency to approach Francis from an overly heavy pious viewpoint.