Zeffirelli’s Saint Francis

Franco Zeffirelli just died at the age of 95. I’m posting the two reviews of his films that once were on epinions. I saw “Taming of the Shrew” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at a post-prom midnight screening, and the real Zeffirelli knockout (of his non-opera films), “Romeo and Juliet” in suburban Detroit as a college freshman.

Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) has become a cult film for some left-over flower children and for some admirers of St. Francis of Assisi. No one would argue about the beauty of the cinematography, both interiors and exteriors, but other aspects are more open to question and criticism.


I first saw the film (in English with Spanish subtitles) in southern Mexico during the mid-1970s. I thought it was beautiful to look at (the cinematpography was by Ennio Guarnieri, who had shot Maria Callas as Medea for Pasolini), but very slow. I thought that the actor playing St. Francis (his name was Graham Faulkner, though he certainly looked Italian) was almost as vapid as Donovan’s soundtrack (which is very thin stuff). The wait for Alec Guiness’s pope to appear seemed very long

Seeing it a quarter of a century later [2005] on video, I liked it better. It still seems slow, though I was impressed that the convalescent Francesco speaks not a word until shouting “No!” 36 minutes into the film. I was also impressed that the ending of the film also involves a parallel long wait for the film’s one bona fide star to speak.

I still think that the middle drags and that the whole approach is suspiciously pandering to the youth culture of the late 1960s (the film was shot in 1970 and by the time of its premiere in 1972its simple flower power view already seemed dated). Like Z’s “Romeo and Juliet” the leads are beautiful young unknowns, misunderstood young flower children who want to bliss out in communal living. (Also like them and the English-speaking fresh new faces that Fellini found for “Satyricon” and Antonioni found for “Zabriskie Point” and Zeffirelli’s later “Jesus of Nazareth” they disappeared quickly, in Faulkner’s case immediately after this film in which he is in every scene, often in very tight close-up. One wonders if casting Al Pacino and Isabella Rosselini, both then unknown, would have ended their careers at the beginnings!)


Having in the interim visited Assisi, the ruined church that the band rebuilds in the valley looks very authentic and the one in Assisi looks like (and perhaps is) the one now attached to Santa Clara’s convent.

I don’t know about the snow and the badlands they cross en route to Rome, but the countryside looks Umbrian, which is to say gorgeous. The film was shot partly in Assisi, partly in San Gimignano and Gubbio, some in studios in Rome, The papal court was filmed in the Sicilian eleventh-century cathedral of Monreale with its ornate Byzantine interior. (The movie made me want to go to Monreale, which I eventually was able to do—and was not disappointed).

The costumes and cinematography are voluptuous, even if the most memorable scene is Francis stripping off his fine clothes and giving them back to his father before going naked out the city gates. Faulkner definitely had a great ass! — in addition to his very soulful eyes. I’m sure that Zeffirellli derived pleasure from looking at him —naked or not.

Francis rising from what everyone thought was his deathbed, to catch and kiss a house sparrow, balancing perilously along the ridge of the very high roof of his father’s house and the fields of poppies are especially memorable scenes, as is the pomp of the papal audience (providing maximal contrast to the ragged band of Franciscans come to submit and seek guidance from the head of the universal church.

The scenario’s historical accuracy is particularly misleading in regard to Bishop Guido burning the church and (Saint) Clare living with the brothers in Christ. And in literally fabulous costume design for the princes of the Church: the politicians in the Vatican (and Bishop Guido back in Assisi) are truly Babylonian in their pomp and splendor and indifference to the humble carriers of the True Faith (when the Franciscans come to see and submit to Pope Innocent III, as for the Jews in their Babylonian captivity).

In his memoirs, Zeffirelli recalls that “one British writer after another produced a script—we must have had twenty in all. . . . The problem was that they kept seeing Francis in Protestant terms. To them he was a pre-Lutheran revolutionary overthrowing the authority of the Pople, whereas the opposite was the case.” It seems to me that the script that Zeffirelli, Lina Wertmuller and Suco Cecci d’Amico (the last scripted a number of the later Visconti films) produced retains more rebellion at the theocratic medieval society than subservience to “the establishment” — which was represented in a very 1960s way.

From Zeffirelli’s memoirs, I also learned that before Donovan, Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen had attempted to collaborate on music for the film. Trying to imagine the music they might have produced boggles my mind. Listening to the music Donovan did produce could easily put me to sleep. I am astounded to learn that there are people who adore the film’s music. I suppose it is easier to love the movie if one does, but I continue to think that there is more sustenance in a single honeysuckle blossom than in Donovan’s score (and it not that I loathe Donovan, either; indeed, “Try and catch the wind” is one of my favorite 1960s songs).


©2005, Stephen O. Murray


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