A very light-hearted, beautiful, episodic film about a group of monks who follow St. Francis. I didn’t know Rossellini was capable of humor and lightness – this comes as pleasantly surprising as Smiles of a Summer Night. The monks look silly running everywhere they go, and they take in a village idiot who never quite gets the hang of things, so I thought for a while that this was a religion-mocking predecessor of Life of Brian, but the underlying seriousness about their faith and Francis’s lessons on humility come through by the end.
“As the title indicates, my film wants to focus on the merrier aspect of the Franciscan experience, on the playfulness, the ‘perfect delight,’ the freedom that the spirit finds in poverty and in an absolute detachment from material things. . . . I believe that certain aspects of primitive Franciscanism could best satisfy the deepest aspirations and needs of a humanity who, enslaved by its greed and having totally forgotten the Poverello’s lesson, has also lost its joy of life.”
I. Francesco returns from Rome with his companions, having been given the Pope’s permission to preach. Someone has taken over their old hut, so they wander off in the pouring rain to build a new one.
II. Brother Ginepro gave away his clothes to a beggar. Francesco tells him not to do this anymore.
III. Francesco talks to birds. Wrinkled ol’ Giovanni The Simple is given permission to join the group. I can’t remember where I read this, but it said the actor who played Giovanni was too drunk to learn any lines, so they’d shove him in front of camera to improvise his scenes. He’d played a monk earlier in L’Amore.
Francis with bird:
IV. Sister Chiara comes to visit, has dinner with Francesco. It’s said that she first became a nun in their chapel, but I thought they just built the chapel in the middle of nowhere. Guess not.
V. Troublesome Ginepro cuts off the foot of a neighboring farmer’s pig to offer to a sick comrade. The farmer gets understandably angry. Ginepro tries to apologize.
VI. A wordless section: “How San Francesco, praying in the forest at night, met the leper.” Francis silently commisserates.
VII. Ginepro again, makes enough stew to last two weeks so the guys don’t have to stop preaching to cook. Francesco is impressed, gives him permission to go preach, but he must always begin by humbly saying “Baa, baa, baa, much I say, little I do.”
VIII. Ginepro “baa baa”s his way into a violent village of warrior-thugs, who beat the shit out of him and play jumprope with his body. He gets a private conference with heavily armored warlord Aldo Fabrizi (the priest of Rome Open City – I didn’t recognize him in the mop wig and fake mustache) who finally figures out that Ginepro is obviously not a threat.
IX. Francesco is sad because he sees a bandit killed. He and brother Leone try to preach at a house but get tossed out into the mud. He explains that this suffering is “perfect happiness.”
X. The group breaks up. Francesco has everyone spin in circles until they fall down dizzy – whichever city they’re now facing is where they must go preach.
M. Porro: “Rossellini said that his film was a humble and austere work, realistically describing the spirit of the story. … In the cinema, biblical and evangelical subjects took the form of big American films. Think of a film like The Bible by John Huston, The Robe, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told. The rhetoric of these films interferes with the spiritual message.”