St. Francis Review

Late in the twelfth century, Giovanni di Bernardone (Raoul Bova), more commonly known as Francesco, grows up in the comparatively wealthy home of his father Pietro (Mariano Rigillo), a cloth merchant in the town of Assisi. With the church as the centre of the town, young Francesco learns about the sanctity of all life, not just of man but also the animals of the surrounding countryside. As a child, Francesco cares for the birds of the air and for the animals that walk on the earth with his gentle ways attracting the love of Chiara (Amélie Daure), who accepts a bracelet from the young Francesco as a sign of his everlasting friendship.

As a young man, Francesco is tested by a friend of his returning from the forest who lies bleeding, gored by a stag. Leading an expedition into the woods to slay the deer, Francesco sees God in the eyes of the deer and fires his arrow wide, frightening the stag away. His friends mock him but Francesco, knowing that the spirit of God lives in the deer as much as it does in man, returns to Assisi with a newfound faith in Catholicism. However, as news comes of yet another skirmish between the defending Assisians and an army from nearby Perugia, Francesco joins the army and, following their defeat, is taken prisoner at Collestrana. Brought back to Perugia, Francesco would spend the next year in prison.

In captivity, Francesco hears the words of a priest in his neighbouring cell and with a rainwater-sodden copy of the New Testament, he feels reborn, finding inspiration in the Gospels. On his release, his fervent Catholicism sets him at odds with his father, his friends and even his fellow Assisians. Marrying who he calls his Lady Poverty, Francesco retreats into the hills, returning only when blessed with the word of God. Warring with his father, giving away not only all of Pietro's wealth but even the robes and undergarments that he's wearing, Francesco leads two friends, Bernardo (Gianmarco Tognazzi) and Pietro (Claudio Gioè) to the little church in the mountains, Porziuncola or little chapel of St Mary of the Angels. But when Chiaro follows him, Francesco is pursued into the hills by her father, who, having had Francesco described as a heretic for his devotion in the language of the peasants, has the support of Rome as he nears Francesco's hilltop chapel...

Even as a Catholic, I approached this three-hour Italian television mini-series about the life of St Francis with some trepidation. Being a less well-known story than that of Jesus or of the Apostles, who were portrayed onscreen in Jesus of Nazereth and Anno Domini, not to mention Moses (The Ten Commandments), the story of St Francis is one that will probably be known only to Catholics, Italians, for whom he is their national saint, or those with an interest in Catholic history. The summary above draws out much of the early life of St Francis and brings us a third of the way into this mini-series but Giovanni di Bernardone, or Francesco as he was better known, had an eventful life. Clad in rough robes and often barefoot, St Francis was, thanks to his wealthy father, well-educated and fluent in several languages, and so avoided being outcast as a beggar. On the contrary, he was rejected by polite society as a heretic, not only for his praying in Italian - the Catholic Church only stopped the saying of mass in Latin during my parents' lifetime - but for his complete rejection of material wealth, a decision that he made from Jesus' teachings in the Gospels. Those who remember the heated debate in The Name of the Rose, in which the plainly attired Franciscans, who can count amongst them William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), wage an intellectual battle against the Dominicans over this very issue will understand how contentious it was even hundreds of years later. Just as controversial was his decision to reject the notions of a hierarchy in the Church, refusing to describe himself as a priest and preferring the title of Brother.

Yet, St Francis was not so humble in his seeking to spread the word of God. In 1209, he led his fratres minores to Rome and to an audience with Pope Innocent III (Tony Bertorelli) to ask that he be allowed to found a new religious order, being what would eventually be the Franciscans, who remain one of the largest monastic orders in the Catholic Church. At first, the Pope refused but when Francis returned the next day, Innocent III described a dream in which the pillars of the Vatican were collapsing but were being held up by one man, Francis of Assisi. With a papal blessing, the Franciscans were founded and Francis, Pietro, Bernardo and the others in the order walked out of Italy and over the known world to spread the teachings of Jesus. Francis would, in time and in addition to the Franciscans, also found the Order of the Poor Dames, which would later be called the Order of the Poor Clares, in 1211.

Where one might assume Francis to be a lowly monk, he attempted sailings to Jerusalem and to Morocco and attended several Vatican Councils, including one where he would meet Dominic de Guzman, who would later be canonised as St Dominic. In 1219, St Francis even travelled to Egypt to a meeting with the Sultan Melek-el-Kamel, where his faith was challenged with fire but was proved strong enough to be permitted to remain in the country and to teach Catholicism to the people of Egypt. With the occasional exception, such as the voyage to Egypt, most of this features in this mini-series and all in no small amount of detail with the long running time lending itself to various diversions such as Francis' hearing the voices of the birds in the trees and extolling the virtue of whistling to his Franciscan brothers.

And yet however knowledgeable one is of the life of St Francis or how much one appreciates the legacy that he left, much of which, I admit, will be lost on non-Catholics, there's a limit to just how much of his life one might want for. Rich in experience and virtue the life of St Francis might have been but the producers of this two-part television drama tend towards padding where more succinct plotting would have been more appreciated. Fifty minutes pass, for example, before one gets a clear idea of how Francis might find his faith in God reborn and it's not until the end of the first episode that the religious fervour with which Francis lived his life is given a clear voice. Moments stand out - Francis' swinging from the rope of a bell in the church to call the peasants to pray is a particularly fine example of how a belief in God is married to a desire to spread the word that cannot be contained - but as the hours pass, one can't help but wish that the telling of the life of St Francis was a little more to the point.

Unfortunately, the ending of the piece is rushed, largely, I suspect, to compensate for the languorous plotting of the first third. From founding the Franciscan order, Francis rushes across Europe, illustrated by the use of a map, but the film doesn't impress that upon the viewer. Indeed, it wastes no time in bringing Francis back to Assisi to witness not only his illness but also his displeasure at the impressive-looking church built in his honour. However, it is sustained by two very good performances from Raoul Bova and Amélie Daure as Francesco and Chiara, whose loving friendship for one another survives everything that fate, the Catholic Church and even their own actions bring to them. One can then understand the filmmakers' interest in keeping the story small such that this relationship doesn't get lost in the rather grander scenes, such as those set in the Vatican. In doing so, they also allow some nice touches to rise to the attentions of the audience, such as the Franciscans beginning their pilgrimages whistling the main theme or Francis scratching his hands on thorns and seeing the wounds of Christ. And yet it remains something of a chore to watch it all, being a good hour longer than it ought to have been. Religion can blind an audience to many things, such as the truly woeful warnings of the impending apocalypse that have been produced for the American Bible Belt, but can't quite hide the feeling that St Francis, at over three hours, stumbles when it should both soar and inspire.


St Francis, from being directed by Michele Soavi, often looks wonderful and never better than in its first half hour, when the film playfully follows the young Giovanni di Bernardone through the streets of Assisi, where he received his formal education. However, as presented by NoShame, St Francis is non-anamorphic on DVD and the picture loses any sense of quality that it might have had when blown up to a larger screen. Detail is first and most obvious to suffer but there's also a noticeable amount of digital noise in the picture that's present throughout. The audio, being DD2.0 Mono, isn't bad and is certainly cleaner than the picture but sounds underwhelming with the main theme, which ought to really impress itself upon the viewer, sounding thin. This follows through to the dialogue and action, both of which sound brittle and nowhere near as fulsome as they ought to.


As well as a Stills Gallery (1m56s), there is rather a perfunctory Making Of (9m32s), which interviews the main cast and crew to provide a background to the characters and to the production. The best extra is not one, however, that is on the disc, being a rather full booklet that doesn't only offer biographies of the cast and crew but a short history on the life of St Francis and his portrayal on film.


Whilst a niche release - a three-hour television mini-series on the life of a Catholic saint doesn't say blockbuster to me - St Francis has enjoyed an acceptable presentation but I suspect that even the most devout of believers will have a hard time with it. Too long, muddled at times and never quite realising the saint's legacy onscreen, this isn't, in spite of the comparisons, as strong a piece as Jesus Of Nazareth. However, it does have its moments and though they're more infrequent than they ought to be, there is an occasional beauty to the work that shines amidst the ordinariness.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:50:10

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