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Finding Saint Francis

Tuesday 30 August 2016, by SIGNIS

UK, 75 minutes, Colour.
Written and directed by Paul Alexander.

Sydney, August, 30th, 2016 (Peter Malone). Finding St Francis is something that all of us like to do even when we think we know him well – there is always more to discover.

The film was produced by a British group, lay associates of the Franciscans, devoted to promoting St Francis and his spirituality. While another film version of St Francis’s life would always be welcome, there have been quite a number, notably Michael Curtiz’s Francis of Assisi from the 1960s, Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother, Sister Moon from the 1970s and several Francis films by Liliana Cavani from the 1960s to the present. Roberto Rossellini directed a film of St Francis and the legendary stories about him, called the Little Flowers of St Francis, 1951.

This film takes a different tack. It is set in a Franciscan house in the English countryside. A middle-aged man undergoing something of a personal search, arrives at the friary and encounters a group of the lay associates and friars. They are listening to a talk on St Francis by the director, Paul Alexander. He sees something in the man, discusses his situation with him and offers him the role of Francis in the forthcoming film. He accepts and, as he undertakes the role, he sees parallels with his own life.

The budget was limited but several actors and amateurs are used in the film to present the equivalent of Francis’s life but in a contemporary setting and with contemporary costumes. For the pictorial background of Assisi and the surrounding countryside as well as visits to Rome, colour sketches are used effectively. And there is the musical score.

The screenplay traces the details of Francis’s life, many of which are familiar, but which it is important and interesting to hear again: the background and the wealth of his merchant father, his French mother, his early and rather carefree life, his military service… This includes giving away his armour and horse to a needy soldier, but his father supplying substitutes.

Important for the development and for the spirituality of Francis, there are scenes where he encounters a poor man and has such a personal experience in the meeting that he falls in love with Lady Poverty. This is more than reinforced in his encounter with the leper, his appearance and stench, and the compulsion to kiss him. There is also the confrontation with his father when he strips off his clothes and leaves home for ever.

In the life of the Franciscans, there are scenes of the rebuilding of San Damiano, of other churches in Assisi, of living at the Portiuncula, and the coming of various friend s and associates who want to share his life and his poverty and charity. And the same is true of the young woman, Clare, who embraces the spirit of Francis.

Francis was something of a free spirit, becoming a deacon but never a priest, sometimes preaching effectively, sometimes reticent. At one stage, keen to meet the Muslims, he ventures to meet the leaders. But, it is in his meeting with Pope Innocent III that there is drama, the Pope wary of him, agreeing to consider the church’s approbation of the Franciscan movement, his dream of Francis supporting the collapsing church, and the approval given.

The film also highlights how Francis was not really an institutional man, having difficulties with a friar who wanted to have his own prayer book, castigating him that this was against poverty – but also falling foul of his successor, Brother Leo, who wanted structure and order in the movement.

Not every scene is as successful as the other – and it is interesting as well is distracting to see the same actor turning up in a variety of roles, from Francis’s stern father to a benign friar. And, for the performances, it is not as if many of the people are so much acting but rather, in the manner of a staged play or pageant, they are role-playing, the audience at the talk sometimes visible, and the intercutting of scenes and the talk.

In these days of Pope Francis, there has been more movement towards finding St Francis, discovering and appreciating his spirituality – and this is the kind of documentary-drama that opens up the story of Francis and would be well worth seeing and listening to in anticipation of nurse preparation for watching one of the fuller feature film versions.

For copies of the film, go to the two sites:
It can be viewed, rental through Vimeo and is available through Amazon where there are Amazon deliveries

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