Films are an important feature of popular culture but can they also be a vehicle for theological enquiry? Veritas thinks they can! Every month during the Year of Faith, we offer a Film of the Month,which we invite you to watch, reflect on and discuss. As an initiative for the Year of Faith, you might like to start a Year of Faith Film Club in your work, school or parish community, where these films can be discussed and shared. Film reviews are kindly provided by Fr John-Paul Sheridan PhD.
Film of the Month for January: Brother Sun, Sister Moon
The story of St Francis of Assisi is one known to most Christians – he was a young man from twelfth-century Assisi, had a spiritual conversion, founded a community of brothers, and was one of the principle reformers of the medieval Church. Many of us would remember hearing stories about Francis when we were children – preaching to the birds, the wolf of Gubbio, and the first representation of the crib, which came from the Little Flowers of St Francis, first printed in 1476. His spiritual legacy is still as strong today, eight hundred years later. The first biography was undertaken by the Franciscan, Tommaso di Celano in 1228 at the request of Pope Gregory IX, and he was to go to write two further biographies (hagiographies). Since those early works, St Francis has been celebrated in music (Liszt, Messiaen and Walton), art (Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico, El Greco, Caravaggio and Zurbarán) and in literature (Chesterton), as well as countless other biographies.
Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 film on the life of St Francis is of a particular style and is very much of its time. For that reason, the film requires a closer and more considered study than a film might usually entail. It might be said that Francis is proffered as the original ‘flower child’ or hippie. The life of St Francis and the philosophy he espoused was seen to have a resonance with the counterculture of the 1960s.
The film starred Graham Faulkner as Francis and Judi Bowker as Clare and the songs throughout were performed by the 1960s folk musician Donovan. The cinematography is beautiful and Zeffirelli makes great use of the countryside. The costumes might be a little over the top (in the case of the nobility of Assisi), but it further emphasises the disparity between the old and new life of Francesco Bernardone.
At the time of the film’s release, Zeffirelli was principally known for his two adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). He was also responsible for the 1977 television series Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell in the title role and literally everyone else!
If you are unaware of the details of the story of St Francis, this film is an adequate representation of his life, up to the point where he meets the pope. Any biography or encyclopaedia entry will fill in the rest of the details. There are a number of historical inaccuracies in the film, but none that take from the overall sense of the story.
For a film synopsis and questions for reflection, please click here.