The Flowers of St Francis (1950)

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

‘The Flowers of St Francis’, directed by Roberto Rossellini in 1950, is an Italian historical drama charting incidents in the career of Francis of Assisi. The structure of the film is nine ‘chapters’, each telling a parable from the ministry of Francis, and the nine cumulatively building up to the moment the Franciscan monks head off individually to preach across Italy. Rossellini’s cast are mostly non-actors, with monks playing the roles of the Franciscans. There is an austerity throughout this film, but with this simplicity comes a profound feeling of sincerity and spirituality. There is no attempt to romanticise the actions of the monks, instead their actions and their compassion become the main focus. There is also a sense of childlike wonder in the way Rossellini presents his subjects, from their wide-eyed and innocent approach to the wider world, to the final method of deciding who will go where to preach – the monks spin round until they are dizzy and the direction they stagger in dictates which city they head towards. For all this simplicity, the film is tightly filmed and the cinematography is outstanding. The highlight of the film (a moment picked out by Martin Scorsese in his documentary of Italian cinema) is the encounter between Francis and a leper. The scene is shot on a silent field at night as the monk is travelling home, the leper comes out of the darkness with the only sound being his bell. It’s a small but intense moment of film that is unforgettable.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a profound and beautifully shot film that turns what could have been a preachy subject into something more accessible and cinematically compelling. Watch in a double bill with Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’.

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