Francesco giullare di Dio Review
The latest in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series is, much like a number of their other releases, a comparatively minor work by a major figure. Francesco giullare di Dio was directed by Roberto Rossellini in between work on two of his better known features, Stromboli and Journey to Italy, both of which starred Ingrid Bergman. As such it perhaps can’t help but feel like a miniature, a fact reflected in its execution. Taking as its subject the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the film renders this seemingly big theme small. Rossellini focuses on only a small period of religious career (as it were) - the time of the birth of the first Franciscan monks - and compacts it into tiny vignettes, each separated by an explanatory intertitle. Moreover, he adopts the neo-realist methods of his famed war trilogy, employing non-professional actors and naturalistic locations despite the 13th century setting.
Of course, any attempts at true realism under such circumstances could never match, say, the manner in which Germany, Year Zero captured the post-war devastation of its titular city with an almost documentary eye. As such Francesco giullare di Dio is perhaps as stylised a vision of Italy’s past as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron, yet some of this would appear to be consciously so. One of the film’s most qualities is just how achingly beautiful it is. There’s a plainness and simplicity to the black and white photography which allows the actors and settings to speak for themselves thus highlighting the tiniest of details. The opening sequence is especially strong, a scene of rain and mud that truly connects with the audience in as forceful a manner as anything Akira Kurosawa could conjure up in similar circumstances.
Indeed, Francesco giullare di Dio is an unexpectedly visceral experience. We feel the cold and discomfort of those men as they’re caught in that rainstorm just as, much later, we fully understand St. Francis’ meeting with a leper. This latter scene is completely wordless, silent in fact save for the leper’s bell, and utterly direct; there is no sense of overt spirituality or portentousness here, just humanity - this is cinema as much the non-believer as it is the believer. Rossellini’s method is more illustrative than analytical whilst his use of disruptive episodes as opposed to a narrative proper removes any propagandist edge his film may otherwise contain.
Instead each scene is taken for what it is - and in many ways Francesco giullare di Dio is simply a ‘men at work’ film like a Howard Hawks picture, Hatari! say. Certainly, any claims to it being a biopic aren’t necessarily convincing. Though St. Francis is at its centre - and the film’s title, of course - this is very much an ensemble piece. Francis may be played by the charismatic Brother Nazario Geraldi, yet the charm of the film lies as much with the other characters. Indeed, as with Hatari!, there is also a great sense of the incidental humour inherent in day-to-day working activities, and it is this which draws us into the film for its hour and twenty minutes or so. Francesco giullare di Dio may not be a film which carries the same impact as the conclusions to Germany, Year Zero and Journey to Italy or the more stunning moments of Rome, Open City and Paisà, but it’s an inviting work nonetheless.
Francesco giullare di Dio’s DVD presentation is little short of superb. Though there are very minor signs of damage (which are only truly noticeable during the final scene) the restoration work is near flawless. The image is continually crisp and neither too bright nor too dark resulting in a print that presents the film is as good a condition as could be expected. (Note that this is also the full-length Italian cut of the film with the original Italian intertitles and optional English subs.) The sound doesn’t impress quite so fully as the music at times lack clarity, though this may be a fault of the original recording. Otherwise, the disc offers a clean two-channel recreation of the original Italian mono.
The extra features housed on the disc itself are decidedly scanty but mostly worthwhile. Italian film critic Maurizio Porro provides a brief introduction of the film which places it within the context of Rossellini’s career. Also present is the “Giotti prologue” , an alternative opening used on the American print but excised from all other versions and is believed to have not been filmed by the director himself. Another deleted scene is also present albeit in the form of four production stills and some brief notes (it was apparently cut as Rossellini was unhappy with some of the performaces). The remaining features on the disc are less important: there’s a restoration comparison and a promo Cinema Forever, the Italian company responsible for said restoration.
More impressive is the accompanying 32-page booklet which houses a wealth of information about Francesca and its production. Opening with a specially commissioned introduction from Martin Scorsese, these pages also hold some fascinating colour production stills, a brief precis of the real St. Francis’ life and works, a critical analysis of the film and its reception, notes on this particular version and the deleted scenes, and excerpts from Rossellini’s sources. All in all an intriguing read.