The prologue to The Flowers of St. Francis informs us of the history of the Franciscans, a tale of emerging hope and love--the narrator's voice calm, as though he were describing good weather--but on the screen the images were all Hell: agonized naked figures with creatures rummaging around in their innards, the wrinkled monkey faces of devils glaring at us--how dare we interrupt their busy day?--the Last Judgment in cracked Medieval brushstrokes, thankfully dimming, but still there.
So imagine my surprise at the movie itself: ten little backyard skits, the monks scampering around the fields, their bare feet fearless on thistles and rocks, or standing in the pouring rain like pacific cows, or huddled in their hand-made huts, flimsy as a child's puppet-show cardboard-box theater. And their faces--these actual Franciscans, happy to play-act the first of their kind, little half-smiles on their faces, as though they had a little secret they were about to tell any minute, to give it all away.
Most of the picture felt like a holy silent comedy, pratfalls and mishaps Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, the little numbskulls in on the joke--the Italian title is Francis, God's Jester--and they are in the end more than clowns, but true royal fools, the only ones allowed to sit at the feet of the King and tell Him the truth, with a grin.
And what is this truth? Two "little flowers" from the movie will suffice:
Francis lies on his face, happy to think of the Cross in the twilight--and hears a leper approach, ringing his warning bell--so sad and beautiful, a literal upside-down echo of the little arch of bells they had been given earlier, which they carried in jingling glee across the field to their altar, running their hands over the bells to make a little music and call them to satisfying prayer. But now, for a moment, Francis hesitates, then slowly approaches the leper, placing his hands on him, softly embracing him, then letting him go. The leper looks back briefly, then continues, neither of them speaking. And Francis makes one of two gestures with his hands that he repeats often.
The first is a gentle version of Edgar Kennedy's old face-wipe, exasperated at the recalcitrant world, busting his derby and thwarting his plans. But when Francis does it, his hand moves gently down his face, and he shakes his head a little in indulgence, and instead of Kennedy's bug-eyed rage his lowering hand reveals a small smile.
But the second gesture, the one he makes as the leper disappears, is profound: both hands cover his face, the fingers pointing up--the nuns told us children to keep our fingers up when we prayed, so that the angels perched on their tips would not fall--his head bowing a little. In these moments he knows it's more than a hilly-field camp-out, that the joy he feels in suffering must be paid for, and that he cannot suffer for everyone. This is the joy: the humility to do whatever is needed, to love like a gift, not a transaction.
And one more: Brother Ginepro at last allowed to go out and preach--but Francis commands him to first say, "I talk much, but accomplish little." And Ginepro comes upon the camp of the marauding barbarians, and he stands near roaring waters, and speaks as he was commanded--but we can't hear him, the waters scolding him--no, urging him, to approach the savages, and let them pummel him and pretzel-twist him and toss him like a ball and swing him like a human jump-rope--I kid you not--that same Franciscan half-smile on his face, glad to be of service.
OK, one last little flower: As they leave forever, the town showers them with gifts--which they give to others, their staffs and sandals included, free at last, barefoot and spinning like dizzy children at a crossroads, eager to have the best conversations they can imagine: not a word about themselves, what a relief.
Rossellini--writing once more with Federico Fellini--has found a way to express devotion without solemnity--because he keeps everything simple, like Francis' prayer. No one seems to be taking to this haphazard little movie--and I can feel Francis looking at me, warning me with his kind eyes not to puff up too much because I stand alone in admiration--so I will defer to him, and shrug--the quintessential Italian gesture--and maybe spin around a little, some day.