The tale of St Francis is one of the most central of the Catholic saints to Christian life. Roberto Rosselini directed a film based upon St Francis's life in the 1950s- a follow up to his trilogy about the end of the war (Roma citta Aperta, Paisa, Germany Year Zero) took the theme of the Christian renounciation of the world and attempted to create an alternative to the war, greed and genocide which had dominated his era. St Francis and his disciples in this movie are held up as an alternative- a Christian folly- against the worldly wisdom of the dictators who had deformed the modern era. This film is an attempt- like Robert Bresson's work about Joan of Arc- to reclaim the values of a medieval saint and install them in a modern era. It is a utopian film- but its utopia is the utopia of personal spiritual fulfilment- of rebirth through Christ, the utopia of what St Francis calls perfect happiness, the renounciation of everything, even happiness itself for the beatific vision of God acheived through suffering.
In that sense the film rejects the whole basis of modernity. From first to last this is a film that revels in folly and stupidity. Its heroes are the mad and the starving- its power lies in its reinvention of poverty. Similarly to the Christians studied by Peter Brown in his magnificent study of Poverty and the Church, Rosselini wants us to remember that wealth is independent of virtue and indeed can be opposed by it. Possessions in this film are an absolute evil. Villagers who love their pigs and cows not as brother animals but as possessions let them obstruct their own salvation. One of the monks, Ginepro, is so foolish that every time he goes out he manages to lose his habit, or rather he grants someone else the privilege of taking his habit from him. That happens three times- the last time the Monks are being visited by Sister Chiara and they have to drag the naked Ginepro off to a bush to reclothe him using some plant stems and a coat. Ginepro's naivety and his lack of property though are of a piece- worldly wisdom is all about the collection of possessions, Ginepro has no idea about how to function in a world of possessions. Give him a load of wood and some vegetables and you'll find him as likely to allow the wood to be cooked and the vegetables to be used as material for the fire as anything else- indeed you can expect him to not realise that food goes cold and rots with time.
Poverty is a virtue here- but so is laughter. St Francis laughs himself throughout the film- he finds things absurd and funny- the title translates as St Francis, God's jester! The monks laugh repeatedly and joy is something they often express. But its the object of their laughing and their joy that Rosselini wants us to observe. Joy proceeds in this film from comradeship. Everyone is everyone else's brother. Poverty has abolished property and even a sense of individuality. Everyone follows St Francis and Francis himself follows his congregation- allowing them to take major decisions- and of course the living God. Francis declares himself the leader because he is the greatest of sinners and invites, nay orders his own followers to place their feet upon his face and neck because of his manifest and multiple sins. This response to every question is echoed by his followers- when Ginepro is captured by the Barbarian King, he too uses the response, telling the King that he Ginepro has deserved death because of the way that he has betrayed God and submitting to any torture with a stare that signifies his increasing saintliness. Hence Francis in a conversation later in the film tells one of the monks that the only way to Christ is to suffer for him- in suffering man abases himself, wipes himself clean of sin and comes closest to the Christ of the cross. In wordly happiness, man is furthest from that Christ and lives in sin- even if he loves Christ, so long as he is rich or powerful or even content, he cannot acheive full happiness, wallowing in the mud he can.
But that's not to say that pain does not hurt or touch these monks. Rosselini wants us to see that- and in perhaps the film's most important scene which is almost silent he does. In the nighttime Francis prays on his own to God, and as he prays a leper comes along almost silently beside the dwellings of the monk. Francis watches the leper through the trees, observes the man's bloodied and emaciated face, his infected hands and his doomed limp. He moves up to the leper, almost level, the leper slowly moves away. Francis keeps following the man, then deliberately he stands in front of him and hugs him, blessing him in hugging him. Of course we are meant to know what this means. Leprosy in the Middle Ages was the most infectious disease of them all, the most feared disease. The leper moved away to spare Francis, Francis embraced him to remind the leper and himself of the man's common humanity. Perhaps the most important shot of the whole film is at the end of this sequence, the leper moves on and St Francis filled with shame and horror collapses weeping to the floor. As a piece of cinema it is incredibly powerful, not a word has been spoken and yet the central Christian themes of compassion and abasement, of the centrality of morality, the sadness of fallen man and the hope of salvation have all been expressed wordlessly in the actions of a Christian saint and a disfigured human being.
And this is a film that we can take in this way. Originally it was preceded by shots of medieval art work. Even in the form we see it in most normally today- it is a story told like a medieval religious chronicle. There is no story- and the most important aspects of St Francis's life and order- his commission from the Pope and his preaching are left out. This is a story rather about what makes a saint, it is a story whose message is spiritual and not secular or historical. Whereas as a historian my film would concentrate on St Francis, the Pope and the Emperor, this film concentrates on St Francis and his comrades, their charity, their foolishness and comedy. That has a more profound message though for our times- Rosselini's film wants us to refocus. For too long he is telling us we have focussed on politics, for too short a time on ethics. To renew society after the experience of total war it is ethics though- it is the personal and sainthood that can reach something that no ammount of political theorising can. In a sense this is self criticism- Italy had of course sustained a Fascist dictatorship and Rosselini had worked for it- when he talks of sin, Italy's sin must be at the forefront of our minds. But this is a deeper film than a mere examination of a personal and national moment- Rosselini wants us to refocus our attentions, politics is not enough, only ethics can save us now is what he seems to be saying.
Martin Oms considered this film to be the marriage of Christianity and cretinism- his comment missed the point. This film exalts cretinism to be the foundation of a truly Christian life. Such a vision is incompatible with almost any modern philosophy of government- to laud the beggar and the preacher on the street over the responsible member of society, the senile old man over his children who want their cow to build families not be fed to religious simpletons, the monk who robs a peasant of his pig in order to feed a sick comrade over the industrious farmer. It puts all our heirarchies upside down and reminds us of how different the Middle Ages are from our own time in terms of mental outlook. Rosselini was to pass in later films, as Martin Scorsese argues, to considering the Dosteovskyan question, is idiocy truly possible in the society that we have built or is there no place for the holy fool in our world?
Regardless of our answer to that question, this is one of the most powerful portraits of the holy fool in western cinema- there may indeed be nothing else much like it. It is a beautifully shot film- as a non-Christian I do not agree with its message but I cannot but marvel at the power with which that message is expressed.