Peasants, Townspeople, and Social Life
Francesco is the 1989 docudrama directed by Liliana Cavani relating, in flashbacks, St. Francis of Assisi's transformation and awakening from privileged son to religious humanitarian and full-fledged saint. The film is based on Hermann Hesse's novel Francis of Assisi (1908, original in German), as well as the long list of hagiography on Francis.
Francesco is set following the death of St. Francis in Assisi 1226. His most loyal companions, Fr. Rufino, Fr. Leo, Fr. Angelo, and St. Clare, recount his life through their memories. Once the rich son of merchant Pietro, Francis goes off to war against Perugia, only to return to a society which has endured severe suffering and poverty. In one scene, he strips himself of all his robes in front of his father as an act of renouncing his wealth and leaves naked, joining the beggars in the poor part of Assisi. A series of moments from Francis' life are shown after, in place of a linear narrative, until his last moments when crying to God, he receives the stigmata, the wounds Christ suffered on the cross. Then he dies and becomes a saint.
Audience reviews of the film were mixed, but the critics did like this film, and its success at sticking to a historically accurate portrait of Francis. It is one of the 15 films listed in the “Religion” category on the Vatican film list and won three awards and was nominated for a fourth, two of them for best production design and one for the best supporting actor. It was in competition for the Palm D’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. The one major critique of the film was the casting of Mickey Rourke as Francis. Many thought he was too muscular and big for the role, but this critique was refuted with the claim that if anyone could be a Saint, then anyone can portray one.
Francesco draws on a number of hagiographical accounts of St. Francis, as well as the Rules he wrote for his order. Francis’ Fourth Rule, Regula Bullata, we see being written before he receives his stigmata in the film. The Fourth Rule outlines the way to live according to Francis, who based it on the Gospels. This Rule was a lot more concise, making it evident that he had received help from secretaries like Leone, who plays a significant role in the film. Joan Acocella highlights that Francis took pride in calling himself “illiteratus,” as he thought book learning was for the rich, and “thus of arrogance,” and never owned a complete Bible. The hagiographies that are foundational to Francis’ story on film are Thomas of Celano’s first and second life of St. Francis, the Vita Prima (1228) and Vita Secunda (1247). The texts are both split into three parts. In the Vita Prima we are introduced to the purity of St. Francis's life and his teaching, as well as the events of the last year of his life, including the stigmata that we see in the film. The Vita Secunda extends the scope of St. Francis’ life by telling his conversion story, and the tension between St. Francis and his strict adherence to his Rule, and the followers that tried to relax it, all of which is depicted in the movie’s third act. There is other hagiographical material in the film. The Legend of the Three Companions, written by Fr. Rufino, Fr. Leo, and Fr Angelo, is shown being written following the death of Francis, and is portrayed as the “present” in the film. It’s the story of Francis talking to the earliest group of brothers, who were inspired to follow Francis’ way of life.
Overall the film does a lot of things right, but a major critique of Francesco is its butchering of Clare’s role in this film. She is a supporting figure, an not Francis’ most important follower, which goes again much of the hagiography. Clare was known to be one of Francis’ most important companion and the founder of her own branch of the Franciscan movement—the Poor Clares. According to First life of St. Francis, the Poor Clares were critical to the foundation of the Franciscan order. However, the movie seems to ignore Clare’s contributions, her Order, and her own life in the film.
Clare serves as a source of temptation to Francis in the film, in similar ways Mary Magdalene does for Jesus in the film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Francis’ first act of generosity is meant to impress Clare, who joins the order for him. Her devotion is even questionable: is it out of love for Francis or Christ? She is also the only woman around St. Francis. She needs him constantly, she is the one who is afraid of lepers at first, and Francis has to lead her to see that lepers are not monsters (contrary to how they are depicted in the hagiographical literature). Significantly, Clare (or her sisters, who are not even seen in the film) is never cloistered, and is seen wandering about with the other friars. The Poor Clares were strictly cloistered as nuns, and perhaps the filmmaker intended Clare to seen as one of the brothers in this film in order to paint the Franciscans as more radical than they actually were.
High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300)