The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)
After his great Neo-Realist films Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), and just as he was beginning his relationship with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini made this sweet-natured film that combines some of his Neo-Realism (the use of non-professional actors) with some of the moral questioning he does in the four Bergman films, especially Europe '51 (1952). Based on two 14th-century books that retold legends of the life of St. Francis and his followers, The Flowers of St. Francis consists of a prologue and nine episodes. The actors, who were Franciscan monks, are not credited, although Francis was played by Brother Nazario Gerardi and the key role of Brother Ginepro by Brother Severino Pisacane. The only professional actor in the film is Aldo Fabrizi, who had worked with Rossellini in Rome, Open City. Fabrizi is the monstrous tyrant Nicolaio, who torments Ginepro until he is won over by the monk's gentle endurance of all the ills inflicted on him -- at one point, Ginepro is used as a human jump rope, then dragged around Nicolaio's camp behind a horse. The title of the film in Italian is Francesco, Giullare di Dio, meaning "God's jester," and the moral lesson constantly taught in the film is that of self-abasement to the point of ridicule. In a key episode, Francis and another friar go in search of perfect happiness. They find it when they go to the house of a man who repeatedly refuses their plea for alms until he finally beats them and kicks them downstairs. Then Francis explains that true happiness is to suffer in the name of Christ, a moral lesson not unlike the one learned by Irene Girard (Bergman) in Europe '51, where it's expressed in more secular terms. (And one that I might use as an excuse the next time I shut the door on a Jehovah's Witness or a Mormon missionary.) The screenplay was written in collaboration with Federico Fellini with consultation from two Roman Catholic priests, though the film is much lighter in tone than that suggests.