It is one of Roberto Rossellini’s finest films which is back on the screens, restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the Bologna Cinematheque. In 1950, the year he welcomed Ingrid Bergman to Italy to shoot Strombolithe great modern filmmaker also signed this obvious and light as a breeze film, inspired by anecdotes surrounding the life of Francis of Assisi, as collected in the Fioretti (“little flowers”), anonymous work of the XIVand century.
By their luminous and rustic outline, The Eleven Fioretti of Francis of Assisi, written with Federico Fellini, mark the supreme accomplishment of the neorealist project, but also its surpassing. Rarely, in fact, has a film been so freed from dramaturgy, offering itself as a simple bouquet of moments which are so many acts of grace.
Rossellini is interested in the Franciscan order taken at its source, when this one, far from being institutionalized, has just received the authorization of Pope Innocent III, and still presents itself as a small brotherhood of a dozen disciples, gathered around its instigator not yet qualified as “saint”.
They arrive from Rome in the pouring rain and take up residence in a valley near Assisi, right in the middle of the fields. They erected a makeshift chapel there to shelter from bad weather and then set about living according to the precepts of modesty and sobriety, earning a living from begging, giving up their material goods, and even their tunics, to the needy. Everything around them is worthy of being called “brother”: the birds we talk to, the neighboring farmer’s pigs, the trees, the plants, and even the fire that shouldn’t be beaten too violently!
Beyond the frugal life, it is the childhood of the community that Rossellini highlights: a wonder in contact with nature, which takes the form of a game at every moment. His brothers, interpreted by real Franciscan monks, frolic, frolic in the little pastoral theater which serves as their world. Abandoning miracles and hagiography for natural life, the film turns away from François for an even simpler character, Brother Genièvre, who rushes headlong into the experience of things, does nothing but stupid things, and even finds himself in grappling with the burlesque tyrant Nicholas of Viterbo (Aldo Fabrizi in extravagant armour), whom he disarms with his beatific smile.
We could call them imbeciles or enlightened, but it is this part of madness, of idiocy in the Dostoyevskian sense, of radical anti-individualism, which also constitutes a threat for the profane order and commercial calculation. This is where the film finds its political meaning, the echo of which takes on new resonances today.
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