Made in 1950, just five years after Open City, this first entry in Robert Rossellini’s career-long exploration of biopic figurativism is also the great moralist’s most devout movie—a Christian film busy with life struggle and uninhabited by God. Faith and divinity aren’t the issues; the icon-shaped episodes (detailing the attempts at ascetic righteousness made by Francis and his motley club of monks) deal instead with folly, humility, and happiness. No other European film has staked out early Catholicism’s semi-Buddhist tenor quite like this. But what’s most surprising is the movie’s buoyant silliness and fond humor—is this Rossellini’s only comedy? The brothers’ narrative pickles sometimes verge on slapstick, in a movie about sainthood! (The Italian title is Francis, Jester of God.) Using a cast of actual monastery Franciscans, Rossellini’s movie is loose, generous, and deceptively modest, just like its subject. The extras include a thick booklet of critical assessments (including a Rossellini-evangelizing 1955 letter from André Bazin to cranky Italian critic Guido Aristarco), the original American prologue contextualizing the film with medieval art, and new interviews: a historian, an Italian priest-critic, and Isabella.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 20, 2005