9CDBB6D0-6BEC-4E62-A639-27CC357734E4Brother Nazario Gerardi – ‘The Flowers of St. Francis’

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Praise be to you, O Lord, and to all your creatures. 
Especially Brother Sun, through whom you light our days. 
He is beautiful and radiant and resplendent, 
and derives all meaning from you
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~ Canticle to the Sun

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The deepest realisations and expressions of truth in Christianity have sometimes come from words and understanding, as was the case with Meister Eckhart, but it is, by far, not the most common path. Many a man or a woman have come to embrace God’s being through the expression of profound love and surrender. Such a path was trodden by Francis of Assisi, and has been splendidly shown in Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film ‘The Flowers of St. Francis’. And if all one knew of Francis of Assisi was through watching this supremely elegant film, one would know what needs to be known, one would meet the essential — the essence — of this man’s life, of anybody’s life when it is lived from love and humility. One would know of the pure joy of being, of trust in life’s bounty, of care and attention for every beings on earth.

Showing only a moment of Francis’ life, the film is more a parable on the qualities that were emphasised throughout his life and teachings, than the real description of his life’s journey. Through a succession of simple vignettes, we are exposed to a panoply of Francis’ various expressions of love. We are shown a man who lived with his heart, and a life that has been made into a prayer to god. We are shown that prayer is but an act of love. We are shown people coming together around a common faith in God, their daily life and turmoils, their behaviours. Francis of Assisi encouraged his disciples to access or express god’s being by being oneself an example of the presence of god. And by making this presence shine in all their daily activities, so that the brightness of god can be harvested by everybody around. These expressions are in the film like the little flowers of St. Francis. A whole bouquet of them.

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Praise be to you, O Lord, 
for Sister Moon and all the stars, 
which you cause to shine clear and bright
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~ Canticle to the Sun

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Francis had gathered around him eleven brothers in faith who devoted themselves to a life of prayer and poverty. The film starts with the reciting of Francis’ ‘Canticle to the Sun’, which I will be quoting from all through the text. The group is returning from Rome to St Mary of the Angels, where they will live for a while and spread “the power of their meekness and their sweet love of peace.” It is pouring rain and they are valiantly walking through the countryside. We are in 1209, and they have just obtained from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious Order, the Franciscans. 

One should see the faith of these men running about like a crazy flock of birds, almost disappearing under the heavy rain, while speaking of their concerns about the spiritual quest. This is a pure vision of cinema, and the photography makes them melt in their environment like in a bas-relief. Can we ourself stay humble under the torrential rains of our thoughts and feelings, under the outpouring of our false beliefs and protective habits? Not the fabricated humility that is only a conditioned reaction, but the simple and courageous abiding in this undefeatable presence that is the very core of our being, unattached and incorruptible. 

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Praise be to you, O Lord, 
for Brother Wind, and for cloudy and clear skies, 
and all kinds of weather, 
which brings sustenance to all your creatures
.”
~ Canticle of the Sun

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There is a beautiful quote from Catholic Pope Francis that describes perfectly St. Francis’ being and what is described in the film: “He is great because he is everything. He is a man who wants to do things, wants to build, he founded an order and its rules, he is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is mystical. He found evil in himself and rooted it out. He loved nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn and the birds flying in the sky. But above all he loved people, children, old people, women. He is the most shining example of that agape we talked about earlier.”

One should see the friendship and care among the friars in the film. The way they affectionately gather to pray, their gestures and their kind words. How Francis is softly inviting an old man into the group with these words, “Listen to the wonderful quiet!” The furnace of this companionship is shown through the unforgettable vision of a small isolated hut in the countryside, where the whole group is singing psalms. It expresses the power of a group of friends who gather with the aim of exploring the highest truth together, and its filling up the whole place, extending its heat all around.

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‘The Flowers of St. Francis’

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Praise be to you, O Lord, 
for Sister Water, so useful and humble, 
precious and chaste
.”
~ Canticle of the Sun

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One should see Francis’ love for nature and the birds, and the omnipresence of nature. The whole film is taking place outdoors, where the friars are running about with an impression of joy and freedom. All the actors are non-professional and come from a local monastery. We notice the relative absence of Francis in the film. He is like a quiet presence in the background, often on his own praying or communing with nature, yet thoroughly present to everyone, guiding quietly, only a member of the group. We see him reciting a prayer in the woods with birds flocking all around him, which he calls his “little brothers”: “O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. […] O Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love, and may all on earth learn the secret of your peace.”

One should see Francis’ silent communion with a leper in the wood, his compassion and his utmost gratitude for the Lord that allowed this meeting to happen, to just be. Francis is falling to the ground, sobbing in awe amongst white little flowers that shimmer like stars in the night. Comes then an upward camera panning towards the sky. Life continues in the little community. To one who, working to build another hut, is impatient to go preaching, a brother opposes that “this work brings you ever closer to God. Put your heart into each stone, and each stone will make you greater.” Roberto Rossellini employed two priests to work with him on the film. Although himself not a practising catholic, he had a deep passion for Christian values. Peter Brunette, in his essay for Criterion, writes: “His effort to capture this spiritual essence is astonishingly holistic, with every aspect of the film’s narrative and visual style seemingly serving that end.”

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Praise be to you, O Lord,
for Brother Fire, with whom you light up the night 
and who is beautiful and playful, 
robust and strong
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~ Canticle to the Sun

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One should see the humour and the childish expressions of the friars’ naiveties, idiosyncrasies and mistakes. How these are incorporated amongst them and enrobed with love and tenderness. This is shown when the film acquires at times some wacky and burlesque expressions, which are then contrasted with moments of grace. For suddenly comes Clare of Assisi who, touched by Francis’ message, became a none and subsequently a saint in the Order and monastery that he created for women. One should see the timeless moment of silent communion during the meeting between Francis and Clare, their connection out of deep love and understanding. How the quality of presence between and around them is conveyed. “And the people of Assisi saw a fiery red horizon. They ran to St Mary of the Angels, thinking there was a fire. The sky had been set ablaze by the words of Clare and Francis, inflamed with the love of god.”

One should see Francis’ friend Ginepro arriving in a military camp from where the tyrant Nicolaio is laying siege to a nearby town, and his attempt at preaching to these brutal and sanguinary men. This is really the piece of bravery of the film, and an unforgettable vision of cinema. We see the innocent companion of St. Francis suddenly becoming like a twig of hay in the hands of these violent men. He is thrown about, literally passed from hands to hands, but remains quietly unabashed and at peace with himself. An image of the truth in the hands of ignorance. Of how we take truth to be the negligible part of our existence. How we give excessive importance and attention to all that is only at the level of the coming and going, the fleeting. Our innumerable thoughts, feelings and experiences lower this peaceful presence of consciousness that holds it all, as the invisible, the non-important, the non-essential. Ultimately like the image of Ginepro molested by all that is un-conscious around.

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Praise be to you, O Lord, 
for Sister and Mother Earth, 
who sustains, governs and brings forth
the various fruits with their colorful flowers and leaves
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~ Canticle to the Sun

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This is the tragedy. To see the truth trampled by the false, to see pure awareness forgotten because of, and in favour of, the blindness of man. This part of the movie acts like the most splendid of metaphors on our inconsistency. But truth has the biggest of advantages. It is undefeatable, incapable of being broken or surpassed. And this, the film is going to show in an eloquent way. In front of Ginepro, the tyrant Nicolaio is slowly losing all his apparatus, his solid and spectacular armoury, his diabolical apparence, his anger. He is disarmed, confused. Unable to even look in Ginepro’s eyes, he gives up, sounds the rally and lift the siege. ’This’ is what the simple power of presence can do when it is called to the front, when it is given the prominence of its unescapable reality. It takes over. And all that is fabricated and non essential in ourself surrenders, bows, gives allegiance to the new rightful king and its kingdom of peace. 

Everything in Francis’ life is humble search and deeds. And mistakes are many. Walking with one of his disciples in the countryside, and looking for the next house where to preach, he expresses his concerns about the search for happiness. “Even were we able to speak the language of the angels and know the secrets of the heart, even that would not constitute perfect happiness.” As a result of their excessive preaching, they are beaten up and thrown in the mud by an angry peasant. This is for them the occasion to see where true happiness can be found, or revealed. Not in searching, which is only the result and expression of a lack, or a false sense of self. Happiness is to be found behind, or running through, all objective, time-bound, imperfect experiences. Happiness is to be found at the very core of all our evil, ignorant, illusory deeds. In the background of all misunderstanding, where shines in truth the presence of god. 

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‘The Flowers of St. Francis’

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Praise be to you, O Lord, 
for those who forgive out of love for you 
and who withstand infirmity and tribulation. 
Blessed are those who live in peace, 
for they will be crowned by you, the Most High
.”
~ Canticle to the Sun

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Francis had advised Ginepro to pronounce at the beginning of each of his preaches, “I talk and talk, yet accomplish little”. I think this is really of the utmost importance. The experiential understanding or accomplishment of truth is always beyond words. The words are only at best a path, the showing of the direction. Ginepro was once preaching with his voice covered by the sound of a nearby torrent, leaving the people deaf and indifferent to his words. That made him humble and retreat in himself. And that’s how he could defeat the tyrant. Keeping to the inner — and ultimately outer — presence of our Self will defeat the tyranny of a whole castle of conceptual thinking and separation.

This particular set of mind or understanding is beautifully exemplified in the last scene where the friars who are about to part and preach in the world, are being asked by Francis to spin around in the way of the Sufis and wait until their dizziness makes them fall. Where they stumble is the direction they should follow. First be centered and abide in the truth and happiness of your true self, of your own being. Then only can you live in the world in a way that will be informed by, or be an expression of, the presence of god within. Ultimately, it is the only perfect preaching, or prayer there can be. Then god — and good — is not only within, but without. In other words, this is love in action.

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Praise be to you, O Lord, 
for our Sister Bodily Death, 
from whom no mortal man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin. 
Blessed are those who abide by your holy will
for death shall not harm them
.”
~ Canticle to the Sun

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Francis of Assisi died in 1226 at the age of 44, singing Psalm 141: “O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!

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Praise and bless my Lord.
Give thanks and serve him humbly
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~ Canticle to the Sun

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Film by Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977)

Text by Alain Joly

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‘The Flowers of St. Francis’, 1950 – Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Based on the 14th-century novel ‘Little Flowers of St. Francis’
Script co-written with Federico Fellini – Cinematography by Otello Martelli 
(With actors Nazario Gerardi, Severino Pisacane, Aldo Fabrizi, Arabella Lemaître…)
Buy DVD

Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977) was an Italian film director, producer, and screenwriter. He was one of the pioneers of the Italian neorealist cinema, which is characterised by stories set amongst working class people, shooting on locations, and using non-professional actors. He made 50 films and documentaries among which ‘Rome, Open City’, ‘Paisan’, or ‘India’. ‘The Flowers of St Francis’ was poorly received at the time but is now a classic of world cinema, François Truffaut calling it “the most beautiful film in the world.” 

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A trailer of the film ‘The Flowers of St. Francis’ is available here on YouTube…

Biblography:
– ‘A Fiery Heart: The Radical Love of Saint Francis of Assisi’ – by Felice Accrocca – (Our Sunday Visitor)
– ‘St. Francis of Assisi’ – by Gilbert Keith Chesterton – (Independently published)
– ‘The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi’ – Translation by Abby Langdon Alger – (Forgotten Books)

Websites:
The Flowers of St. Francis (Wikipedia) 
Francis of Assisi (Wikipedia) 
Canticle to the Sun (Wikipedia)
Little Flowers of St. Francis (Wikipedia) 
Roberto Rossellini (Wikipedia) 

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2 thoughts on “The Flowers of St. Francis

  1. Dear Alain, yet another favorite here in your blog! Many thanks for your beautiful words.
    In 1224 Francis passed by here coming from the nearby Castello di Montauto, where he left his habit, bloody, after he received the stigmata at La Verna. Wonderful painters have been inspired to depict that event… and many lovely stories in this area. Your writing brings Francis alive even more.
    Will you perhaps write about Spinoza one day? 😊
    Ciao! Annelied

    Like

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