The Flowers of St. Francis | 1950
Rossellini's film really deflects classification. It's not a biopic. In fact it actively avoids any biographical information whatsoever. Nor is it particularly interested in capturing what might be considered major events for the group or in presenting these monks or St. Francis as some sort of otherworldly godly figure. What it does instead is present a set of episodes that are only loosely connected but collectively capture the ethos of the Franciscans.
Most episodes are rather quotidian in nature depicting the monks humanism and their efforts at following Franciscan values that seem almost to be in contradiction in a world populated by humans. But rather than present these contradictions (and their resolution) as a struggle, as some kind of life-altering challenge, Rossellini films them with warmth and humor. Rather than focus on their hardships (which are absolutely present in the film), the film draws our attention to the joy, the delight, the freedom these monks experience in giving in to a life of utter humility and detachment from material objects.
What is most surprising about the film is that it's neither particularly religious (even though God is mentioned by St. Francis throughout) nor particularly philosophical in that it's not interested in investigating the whys and hows of the Franciscan way of life - not through dialogue anyway. Rather it merely presents a series of day to day actions that end up becoming a source of contemplation (for the monks) and an opportunity for the manifestation of grace.
One of my favorite vignettes (and one of the only ones that centers entirely around St Francis himself) is one in which we see Francis praying alone at night. His prayers are interrupted by a leper passing by. The scene is just about 5-7 minutes long. The scene is almost devoid of dialogue and opens and ends with the same line and near-identical shots. In both the opening and closing shot, Francis is lying prostate on the ground with tears in his eyes crying out to God, "My Lord, my God and my all". But between these two shots, Francis's prayer and faith have been changed indelibly by his encounter with the leper. The shot at the end is a much deeper, much more complex and fervent declaration of faith. It's a lovely lesson in purely visual storytelling. Rossellini doesn't just show us the two characters interacting but uses the space around them to delineate Francis's gradual acceptance of the leper and the strengthening of his faith. By the end the camera drifts higher, closer to the sky and whereas the vantage point for the opening shot was from up high drifting down, this time the camera moves up from the ground (from Francis) and the god he worships just for that instant becomes a character in the film.
One of the best films I've seen all year.