Pax et Bonum: A Movie Review of “Francis of Assisi”
Length: 105 minutes
Maturity: PG (for intense thematic elements)
Cast: Bradford Dillman (Francis Bernadone), Delores Hart (Clare), Stuart Whitman (Count Paolo of Vandria), Finlay Currie (Pope Innocent III), Mervyn Johns (Brother Juniper), Russell Napier (Brother Elias), Cecil Kellaway (Cardinal Hugolino), John Welsh (Canon Cattanei)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Personal Rating: 5 Stars
As you all must know by now, I have a particular soft spot in my heart for religious epics from yesteryear. Now that we have a pope who bears the name of Francis, it’s only natural that the public should have an increased interest in the nature-loving saint from Assisi who they are vaguely familiar with through garden saints and book marker prayers. To begin the journey towards of deeper understanding of St. Francis, I would say that the following film is a must-watch-classic that brings him to life with a perfect balance of gentility and passion.
Bradford Dillman stars as Francis Bernadone, the high-spirited son of an Italian merchant who indulgences in the various pleasures of life in the medieval town of Assisi. With the world at his feet, he marches off in armor and chain mail to fight in a conflict between the city states. He also befriends Count Paolo of Vandria, a dashing Italian noble who takes the young man under his wing as they both embark as brothers-in-arms. But Francis is haunted by strange voices, urging him to abandon his worldly lifestyle and embrace a higher calling God has planned for him. To his father’s dismay, he deserts the army and is thrown into prison as a result. His pious mother, however, understands the workings of his soul and prays for her son’s speedy release.
Paolo is disillusioned by his friend’s perceived cowardice, but the beautiful noblewoman Clare persuades him to show mercy and use his position to pardon Francis. Paolo does so, but with the understanding that he hopes to win Clare’s hand in marriage. But she, like her childhood friend Francis, is being stirred by a deeper calling. After he is released, Francis cannot return to his former life and feels uncertain how best to proceed until he has a mystical experience at the dilapidated Church of San Domiano. There he hears a voice coming from the crucifix, instructing him to “rebuild my Church which is falling into ruin.”
Taking this literally, Francis takes to the streets in a simple robe and sandals, begging for stones to rebuild San Domiano. While many of Assisi’s prominent citizens dismiss him as a lunatic, he begins to draw a following among those who seek to live the rule of total poverty in the spirit and service of Christ. Soon, his “brotherhood” grows to the number of 12, and they journey to Rome to have the Rule of their new order approved by Pope Innocent III. They are almost turned away because the strictness of the Rule, but then the Pope recalls a dream he had, in which Francis upheld the pillars of the Basilica of St. Peter which were crumbling. He takes this as a sign for God, and approves the Franciscan Order.
Meanwhile, Clare makes a decision of her own to join the Franciscan order as a nun, much to the distaste of both her father and Paolo, who has received her father’s approval to marry her, whether she is willing or not. Nevertheless, she escapes with the help Francis and takes her vows. When Paolo breaks into the church, she shows him that her long golden hair has been cut, and calmly walks away from him. She goes on to be the foundress of the Franciscan Sisterhood. While the order grows in Italy, Francis journeys to the Holy Land in hopes of bringing peace to war-torn Palestine and has an extraordinary encounter with the Sultan who, although he fails to convert him to Christianity, does come to respect the courageous friar on a personal level.
But a series of disheartening events beset him, and he must return to Europe empty-handed. To make matters worse, one Brother Elias has been planning to relax the Rule of the Order, and Francis must learn to curb his own pride and take a back seat as the changes go on beyond his control. Suffering from extended illnesses and blindness, Francis retreats to a cave where he once again waits for a sign from God. It comes in the form of the stigmata, which will forever mark him with the Wounds of Christ.
Francis of Assisi combines epic story-telling with profound spiritual depth. The on-location footage shot in Italy is wonderful, as is the colorful medieval costuming reminiscent of Italian pageants that continue to this day, bringing to life all the fierce local pride that characterized the city states of the Middle Ages. I’ve heard some people accuse this film of being too Arthurian or “Disney-land-ish” in feel, and failing to achieve gritty realism. But I felt the color and gaiety shown as the men march off to war was in keeping with the pomp and ceremony surrounding local Italian pageantry, and making it clear why Francis would tantalized by the glories of the battlefield.
Bradford Dillman does an excellent job portraying Francis, from his colorful youth to the darkness enveloping his old age. I particularly appreciate the scenes showing Francis searching his soul, such as when a beggar repeatedly approaches him with the words “Pax et Bonum”, only to vanish from sight as a procession holding aloft a crucifix comes into view. Another one of the deeply spell-binding sequences is when Francis receives his stigmata. It is telling that Dillman refused to smoke while in his Franciscan garb out of respect for the saint he was portraying, showing his own willingness to put his all into the production. However, he was more than happy to have Dolores Hart light him a cigarette on set while he was in his chivalric attire…and even have the photo man capture the moment on camera!
Delores Hart has a particularly resonant voice and elegant beauty that makes her a perfect Clare. Interestingly, the actress herself eventually became a nun, and is today Mother Dolores Hart! I must say that the delivery of her lines sounded rather stinted at times, but nothing really serious to complain about. Overall, I thought the acting in this film was very well done. Again, I’ve heard some people accuse it of not being “dynamic” enough, but frankly, I don’t think it’s fair to accuse laid-back of some failure merely because they choose a different style of acting.
I personally love the tender and charming moments in this movie, including Francis’ repartee with the animals, blessing the children’s pets, charming birds from the trees, and even making friends with some very hungry-looking cheetahs! Also, who can help but love the child-like innocence of Brother Juniper, played by Mervyn Johns? Another one of my favorite parts is when Francis and his brothers walk to Rome to ask for the Pope’s blessing on their new order, singing hymns of praise as they go. Then when they reach the gates, Francis miraculously manages to walk into the Vatican unopposed during the changing of the guard!
And I’m going to enthuse about Finlay Currie again: he’s such a great character actor, and I think he makes a great “Papa” of the Church, whether he be St. Peter in Quo Vadis or Innocent III in Francis of Assisi. Of course we’re pretty sure that these historical characters didn’t really have Scottish accents (more like Hebrew and Italian!), but who’s gonna have the gall to complain about that? Finlay’s lilt is too wonderfully musical to listen to! I’ll also take the time mention here that the Catholic Church and Catholics in general are portrayed very well, with reverence and sympathy, but not hiding the flaws either. We see opulence in the Church hierarchy, collusion among the Franciscan Brotherhood, and an unreasonable streak in Francis himself when the letter of the law proves unlivable for his growing Order.
We also see the dark side of the Crusaders-gone-wild (not romanticized at all really), and are allowed a sympathetic view of the Sultan who spares Francis’s life. I find their dialogue quite intriguing, allowing Francis to approach the Sultan in the name of love as an emissary of the God of Love, and willingly offers to witness to his faith by walking through a fire pit. The Sultan is deeply impressed, and comments that although he has not made a convert, he has made a friend.
Stuart Whitman is totally memorable in his role as the fictional Count Paolo of Vandria. Arrogant, hot-headed, courageous, and impulsive, he’s a great contrast the wistful, contemplative Francis, both as his friend and later rival. One cannot help but feel sorry for Paolo who is so caught up with his own emotions that he fails to take Clare’s feelings into consideration, nor even respect her spiritual quest. Her rejection of his advances wounds him deeply, and turns him into an embittered, and deeply hateful man, chasing after “booty and beauty” as a disillusioned crusader. While in the Holy Land, he happens to run into Francis (just chalk it up to coincidental screen-play-writer intervention!) where he disparages him as a sanctimonious hypocrite who failed to convert the Sultan or keep his Order living by the strict Rule of Poverty.
In the end, he does make something of a come-back at Francis’ deathbed, but afraid (to my eternal frustration) Francis fails to give him as warm a reception as I might have hoped! He does mutter something like, “May God grant you His peace”, but that sounded way too distant for all they had gone through together. Can’t help but be reminded of the chilly way Moses treated Nefretiri in The Ten Commandments…and she wasn’t even being particularly repentant, but rather trying to get him to have an affair with her! But aside from this, I found Francis’ deathbed sequence moving, especially when Clare bids him a final farewell after his death, blessing him with the greeting that turned his heart to God so long ago: “Pax et Bonum.”
So my summation: Francis of Assisi is a gentle, clean, deeply moving classic. I personally think the modern obsession with “grit” in period pieces is just another fad that will pass by, leaving movies like this behind to be enjoyed by all ages. Accuse me of being an incorrigible nerd; I like old-fashioned religious flicks! In fact, I LOVE old-fashioned religious flicks! While some may claim they lack “realism”, I return to challenge, and say that many modern attempts at religious epics are often sorry affairs, bereft with bad attitudes, 1990’s hair-dos, an unnecessary emphasis on guts and grime, and pathetic method acting! There, I feel calmer now. Now I’m ready to say the Prayer of St. Francis (that he evidently didn’t really write, but who cares?!): Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…)
By Rosaria Marie