Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)
Peasants, Townspeople, and Social Life
Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), directed by Franco Zeffirelli, is based on the early life of St. Francis of Assisi (played by Graham Faulkner), starting with his conversion and leading up to his audience with Pope Innocent III (played by Alec Guiness, aka Obi-Wan Kenobi). Much of the film is exposition heavy, seeing that about much of the movie’s runtime is dedicated to St. Francis’ various revelations, visions, and charitable acts for the poor. This leads to many of the historical elements of St. Francis’ life being painted over with broad strokes for the sake of the movie. Brother Sun, Sister Moon is oftentimes compared to another, much more historically faithful film The Flowers of St. Francis. What makes Brother Sun, Sister Moon stand out amongst other St. Francis films, however, is its evocation of the “flower power” vibes of the 1960s and 70s, with its folksy soundtrack written by Donovan and generous, lush, sepia-toned cinematography of the Italian countryside. Funnily enough, The Beatles themselves were initially set to star in the film, which likely would’ve made this film more interesting to watch.
According to Rotten Tomatoes and other various critics, Brother Sun, Sister Moon seemed lacking not only The Beatles but much more. With a 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, the New York Times review stating that the film “confuses simplicity with simple mindedness,” and the late, great Roger Ebert giving it 2 stars saying, “If we didn’t know he was a saint we might think he was a little tetched in the head,” the film did not sit well with critics. Ironically, this is what moviegoers seemed to enjoy about the film, with many user written reviews enjoying the film’s comforting and nostalgic message, which accords with their affinity for St. Francis. Even so, this didn’t wasn’t enough for the film; it made $1.2 million at the box office against a $3 million budget. The film garnered Oscar and BAFTA nominations, for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration and Best Costume Design, respectively, which how in the film’s sumptuous scenery and its use of visuals to convey its message.
While the film is certainly not the most historically accurate one of the bunch, much of it can be traced back to the initial source material of Thomas of Celano’s hagiography of St. Francis of Assisi. Celano’s hagiography primarily focuses on the early years of St. Francis’ life, which is the chronological framework within which Brother Sun, Sister Moon tells its story. Some elements pulled from the hagiography that are properly represented in the film are when Francis leaves for a military expedition against Perugia in 1202 and comes back changed, no longer with a taste for revelry or riches (which can be seen as an untreated, early-form of PTSD), and the famous episode in which St. Francis receives a message from God: “Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is well-nigh in ruins.” Other events from history that are reflected in the film is when Francis helped rebuild the San Damiano chapel and his journey to Rome to seek Pope Innocent III’s endorsement in 1210 (which he does so successfully). Lastly, the title of the film itself is a direct reference to a line from one of St. Francis most popular poems, The Canticle of the Sun.
Some elements of the film, however, are either dramatized or completely fabricated. For instance, in the hagiographical episode of “The Story of the Beggar,” in which St. Francis is overwhelmed with a sense of compassion for a beggar in the street and empties his pockets out for him, is reworked and dramatized in the film through a variety of scenes. One of these include Francis going to his father’s tanneries and freeing the workers, and another in which he tosses swaths of fabric out the window into the hands of the poor below. Additionally, there are many historical liberties taken in the film, such as with the figure of Bishop Guido, who is portrayed in the film as against St. Francis’ message when in reality he was Francis’ supporter, as well as the chapel arson and his friend’s murder. Despite these inaccuracies, the way I see them are similar to the way historical inaccuracies are used in the film Agora (2009). While both films are both shaky with chronology and historical interpretations of events, Agoraas a film strives to capture the “spirit of the age” of Hypatia of Alexandria; Brother Sun, Sister Moon in much the same waystrives to capture the spirit of St. Francis and his message.
Not only does the film capture Francis’ spirit but is also an artifact of the political culture of the 1960s and 70s, especially with its anti-classist, anti-violence, and anti-materialist, and anti-capitalist themes. In one way, we can view the film, as well as the persona of St. Francis, as embodying a thirteenth-century message that was relevant for a more modern, revolutionary take on the world. The “rebellious attitude” of St. Francis in this film draws parallels to Vietnam War protests and the rise of counterculture movements happening in America and Europe at the time of the film’s release. Rebelling against “the man” was seen as emblematic of the generational divide between younger people and their parents, and we see that in St.Francis’ rejection of his parents and his birthright, as well as in his audience with the Pope, in the scene in which he challenges the wealth of the Church. The modern, hippie messaging of “peace and love” is in line with the film’s (and many people’s) interpretation of St. Francis as a lover of animals and nature, and a charitable individual who sympathetic to the poor. The visual messaging of the film also enhances a radical and anti-materialistic themes that are critical of wealth and social inequality: the nobility and the rich wear ostentatiously colored and decadent clothing, which stand in sharp contrast to the dirty, threadbare clothing of the poor.
Despite Brother Sun, Sister Moon’s less-than-positive critical and commercial success, as well as its loose retelling of Francis’ story, the film’s dedication to St. Francis’ positive and charitable messaging and its idyllic, pastoral cinematography, saves this otherwise lackluster film about the early life of St. Francis of Assisi from being completely unmemorable.
High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300)
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