July 28, 2009

Movie Review: Clare and Francis

Yesterday I watched the film Clare and Francis. Directed by Fabrizio Costa and originally produced as a mini-series for Italian TV, this 2007 production is now available as a DVD from the trustworthy Ignatius Press. My reaction is mixed. On the one hand this is a praiseworthy effort on several counts; but to me it doesn't quite succeed in being a good movie.

The greatest success of the film is the effort to be true to history and the sources we have for the life of Francis. It covers a huge amount of material and historical territory, beginning (laudably) with the civil wars and insurrections of the Assisiani in 1198-9 and the battle of Collestrada in 1202, both of which are critical to understanding Francis's background. From there we pass through Francis's imprisonment, conversion, the growth of the early fraternity, the rebuilding of San Damiano, the approval of the primitive Rule, the escape of Clare from her family, Francis's trip to the east and the crisis of leadership upon his return, his illness, stigmata, and death.

Some of the critical conversion moments are dramatized quite nicely, such as the encounters of Francis with the lepers, the message from the crucifix of San Damiano, and the dream of the arms and its subsequent reinterpretation. (To this I would also add the scene of Clare's tonsure, which is one of the most dramatic moments in the whole production.) In this the film is also to be praised for showing Francis's conversion as a sum of various experiences.

On the other hand, Clare and Francis covers so much ground that the progression of parts seemed a little mechanical to me. It also makes it very long when packaged as a single movie; listed at 200 minutes, the whole thing is over three hours. I also found the acting rather flat, though Maria Petruolo occasionally captures a little pathos as Clare. Ettore Bassi didn't do much for me as Francis, but perhaps my own expectations are intense and loaded. (Perhaps I'm not to be trusted on this point, however, as my favorite movie Francis is Mickey Rourke, whom nobody else seems to like.) Even someone like Brother Elias, for whom it would have been easy to capture the ambiguity of his place in the tradition, seemed one-sided. The best characters are Bishop Guido and Pietro Bernardone, who is presented as basically well-meaning until he is finally reduced to rage. Monaldo Favarone, Clare's uncle, makes a serviceable movie villain.

Even more, because the film is clearly working hard to be historically accurate--such that is even possible--I cringed once in a while when certain events about which we don't know much get dramatized in very particular ways. The 1209 trip to Rome for the approval of the primitive Rule is the best example. Clare and Francis presents this great event in the history of the movement as having a very definite motivation within very specific pressures. It's not that the suggestions are uninformed or outlandish, but we just don't know these things for sure and can't say with absolute certainity that this trip ever even happened.

Clare and Francis is clearly presenting itself as an effort to lift up Clare to her proper place within the early Franciscan movement. On this count the film is partially successful. But to be really true to this ambition, it would have had to go on for another two hours in order to cover the rest of Clare's life, the twenty-seven years she outlived Francis, providing both a charismatic authority within the movement and an incontrovertible connection with Francis and the genius of the early fraternity. Other parts take away from this effort by being just plain corny, such as the heartfelt encounter of teenage Francis with little girl Clare as she escapes to Perugia with her family.

Twice during the film the friars at San Damiano are depicted assisting at Mass. Both times they are interrupted, and at one point it seems like there is a danger of desecration to the Blessed Sacrament. One imagines that Francis would have taken this much more seriously than he seems to.

In any case, here's my bottom line on Clare and Francis: if you are looking for a responsible treatment of the lives of Francis and Clare and the beginnings of the Franciscan movement, perhaps as an educational presentation, this would be a fine choice in many of its parts or as a whole. If you are looking for a good movie, maybe not.

The DVD says that it can be watched in the original Italian or dubbed (very well) into English. I wanted the Italian, but the language options wouldn't work for me. Subtitles in English and Spanish are also supposed to be included.

Follow this link to check it out.


A Secular Franciscan said...

I also had mixed feelings about the movie. It's one of those movies I've now seen, and will probably watch again, but not regularly.

By the way, I am one of those who did not like Rourke's interpretation!

Have you ever seen "The Flowers of St. Francis"?

Anonymous said...

I loved Rourke's movie of Francis and thought that it was closure to his life then any other. I can't stand the recent one with St. Claire acting as if Francis was her boyfriend...ringing that bell and all..but I still like brother Sun and sister moon...so go figure.

A Secular Franciscan said...

Brother Sun and Sister Moon had its moments. I remember really liking it - when I was 20. Sort of like Godspell; it's good for a certain age. Maybe films like that are a way to get younger people interested, then, hopefully, they will grow and learn. There's nothing wrong with that.

Qualis Rex said...

Thanks so much for this review.

Lee - Brother Sun, Sister Moon is coming at it from a very Protestant viewpoint. Not heretical, but definitely anti-clerical and anti-tradition. There are no "miracles" or dogma really portrayed. In the film. St Francis is basically portrayed as the proto-Protestant; "one of them" had he been born 300 years later.

Lee Hamilton said...

Thanks for the review - I'm looking forward to checking it out!

Rachel said...

Thanks for the review!

M.A. said...

I've been wanting to see Francesco for a long time, but I can't seem to find a copy anywhere, not even at Barnes & Noble, which keeps its foreign film section pretty well stocked.

Whether Rourke was convincing as St. Francis or not, casting him in the role was a wonderfully ballsy move -- maybe not quite as ballsy as casting Paz Vega to play Teresa of Avila, but pretty darn close.

Brother Charles said...

There are just certain parts of Francesco that work so well for me, e.g. the snowmen, the stigmata...

Paz is much to pretty to be Teresa.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for what I felt was a balanced film review. Having seen most of the films on St Francis I think that this is the one I will share with my class. I liked the version with Rourke too...it captured the period effectively (and made great use of mud)...it is not appropriate for the age of the students I teach though.

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