In the midst of a torrential rain, Brother Francis of Assisi (Brother Nazario Gerardi) in the province of Umbria and his disciples arrive at their outpost in the rural village of Rivo Torto to seek shelter from the inclement weather, only to be driven away by a trespassing peasant who, along with his donkey, have forcibly laid claim to the modest hut. It is a base and uncivilized response that Brother Francis optimistically rationalizes by remarking “Have we not now reason to rejoice? Providence at last has made us useful to others” before continuing on their journey. Arriving at the abandoned ruins of the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, the friars set up camp on the outskirts of town where they immediately begin to reconstruct the derelict chapel and upon completion, set out in the morning on daily communal interactions with the villagers, propelled by their spiritual mentor’s words of guidance to set an example for others and “engage in honest work and make yourselves not dependent on each other”. Regrettably, but amusingly, the selfless intent of the charitable gesture is taken all too literally by the naive Brother Ginepro who invariably returns to camp in a state of undress, often offering his sole remaining possession – his cassock – to beggars on the street. Relegated by Francis to the confined task of cooking meals within the camp in order to keep him from falling prey to opportunists in the village, Ginepro is soon kept company by an endearing, but absent-minded old man named Giovanni who has arrived at the chapel with a bull in tow demanding to speak with ‘Saint’ Francis, having decided to forsake his family (who, in turn, seem more perturbed by the loss of the useful farm animal than by the desertion of their dotty patriarch) and follow Francis in his humble vocation. However, worn down by the hapless and trouble-prone Ginepro’s interminable attempts to return to ministry service, Francis accommodates his request and sends him out into the countryside, where a fateful encounter with a ruthless and megalomaniacal tyrant named Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi) becomes a test of absolute faith.
Shooting primarily in exterior spaces, using unobtrusive camerawork, and incorporating natural environment with a cast of non-professional actors (with monks from the Nocere Inferiore Monastery playing the roles of St. Francis and his disciples), Roberto Rossellini creates a sense of timelessness and contemporary relevance to the universal themes of humility, compassion, faith, sacrifice, and community in The Flowers of St. Francis. Depicting episodes in the life of St. Francis and the nascent Franciscan movement as mundane events in a personal search for existential purpose and inner peace, Rossellini captures a tangible and corporeal essence to spirituality and benediction: the incident at Rivo Torto, his meeting with Sister Clare (Arabella Lemaitre) who would later found the Clarissines (or Poor Clares, the second Franciscan order modeled after his doctrine of absolute poverty, charity, and service), his encounter with a leper (which historically occurs earlier in his life), his communion with nature (that led to his identification as patron saint of animals and the environment). By portraying St. Francis and his disciples within the context of everyday human struggle through all its simple joys and disappointments, celebrations and travails, the film presents a remarkably lucid and accessible portrait of the interrelation between humanity and spiritual enlightenment.
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