Media Notebook: St. Francis on film

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The face of St. Francis of Assisi and other details are seen on a mural at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., in this 2014 file photo. Veteran David Campbell, who takes part in a healing program at the center, said of the saint,  "I like what he's been through. I like what he's come through." (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
The face of St. Francis of Assisi and other details are seen on a mural at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., in this 2014 file photo. Veteran David Campbell, who takes part in a healing program at the center, said of the saint, “I like what he’s been through. I like what he’s come through.” (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

NEW YORK (CNS) — Among the many hundreds of canonized saints recognized by the Catholic Church, few if any enjoy the popularity of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, the man better known as St. Francis of Assisi.

Born around 1181, Francis was a radical follower of Gospel values, the founder of what would ultimately become an entire family of religious orders, a mystic and an advocate of church reform. He was also uninhibited enough to preach to birds and zealous enough to risk his life in an attempt to convert the Sultan of Egypt.

The widespread esteem in which Francis is held — both within and beyond the confines of the church — has been expressed through everything from fervent prayers for his intercession to sometimes tacky lawn ornaments. The prominence of Francis’ legacy was dramatically underlined when the current occupant of the chair of Peter chose the “Poor Man of Assisi” for his primary namesake.

Long before that signal honor, however, Francis’ intriguing life and enduring fame had won him the attention of Hollywood. Indeed, along with St. Joan of Arc, Francis has become something of a sanctified staple on the big screen.

As Pope Francis makes his first visit to the U.S., here’s a brief roundup of some of the films that have profiled his patron over the years. The movies are listed in chronological order:

“The Flowers of St. Francis” (1950)

Remarkable Italian production about the beginnings of the Franciscan Order as its founder sets the example of humility, simplicity and obedience for his first followers at Portiuncula, a little chapel near Assisi, Italy, from which they depart into the world to preach peace. Directed by Roberto Rossellini from a script co-written with Federico Fellini, the movie’s form is as simple and sincere as the subject of the narrative. Its series of little incidents is related realistically, yet marvelously conveyed with an infectious sense of joy by an anonymous cast of monks from a Roman monastery. Subtitles.
The Catholic News Service classification is A-I, general patronage. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.

“Francis of Assisi” (1961)

Uneven dramatization of the life of the 13th-century saint (Bradford Dillman) who founds a religious community based on absolute poverty, seeks its approval by the pope (Finlay Currie), encourages longtime friend Clare (Dolores Hart) to head a similar women’s order, then journeys to the Holy Land, preaches to the Sultan (Pedro Armendariz) and returns to find his order spreading but changing. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the production is well-mounted and well-intended but the script is a muddle of historical fact and dramatic fiction, with results that barely scratch the surface of Franciscan spirituality.
The Catholic News Service classification is A-I, general patronage. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.

“Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972)

Director Franco Zeffirelli’s version of the oft-told story of Francis of Assisi (Graham Faulkner) treats him as secular saint and social heretic, emphasizing parallels between his age and our own. The strength of the movie lies in its rich visualization of the natural beauties of the Umbrian hills and the Romanesque architecture of medieval Assisi. While the lush and lavish production has nothing to do with the Franciscan spirit of poverty and simplicity, it is a pictorially beautiful movie which succeeds quite well in celebrating nature and the quest for finding more to life than accumulating material goods.
The Catholic News Service classification is A-II, adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG, parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Title may be available for loan through the Diocese of Phoenix’s Kino Library.

“Francesco” (1989)

Overwrought Italian production portrays St. Francis of Assisi (Mickey Rourke) as a spiritual agitator challenging the accepted values of his 13th-century contemporaries by embracing a life of utter poverty and simplicity. Director Liliana Cavani builds an elaborate picture of the period’s social injustices but fails to evoke any convincing sense of religious conviction from Rourke’s embarrassingly vacuous performance. English-language version. Occasional scenes of violence, desperate poverty and brief nudity.
The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13, parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

By Joseph McAleer Catholic News Service. McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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