Review – St. Francis DVD

DVD Review: St. Francis (2002 – English version distributed by Ignatius Press).

I received this DVD as part of the Tiber River blogger-review program; when I realized that I absolutely could not stand the film, I e-mailed our longsuffering review-program director for guidance. He pointed out that his army of bloggers is hired to post honest reviews, not marketing copy. Well I hate posting bad reviews, but I’ve got my orders, so here goes:

First of all, you should know that the film is really very beautiful. Lovely medieval sets, sweeping vistas of Italian countryside, fun being had in the costuming department. I am not qualified to give you a historical-accuracy rating on those details, but certainly as a lay-viewer I felt happily immersed in turn-of-13th century Assisi. So I really wanted to like this film.

I tracked along with the director’s artistic-license version of St. Francis’s early life until we got to the battle between Assisi and Perugia. Which, in this version of events, is not merely a battle between two cities, with Francis as a would-be knight. Instead, we have a worker’s uprising in Assisi, with Francis as a proto-Marxist, encouraging his father’s employees to abandon the cloth-works and fight for freedom against their noble oppressors.

Mmn, I dunno.  The truth is I know very little about 12th and 13th century Italian city-states.

–> In researching some Francis-biographies to fact-check later scenes, I did find instances where a scene that played as melodrama in the film was in fact taken from the historical record. But I was unable to find anything corroborating the early-revolutionary take on the the Assisi-Perugia battle. If someone can point me the appropriate source, I would be most grateful.

But I let that go until Francis showed up in prison. Now again, I could be missing sources in my fact-checking. But the accounts I have read (from contemporary-to-him and contemporary-to-me biographies), tell of Francis being taken prisoner in Perugia, where he spends a year until his father ransoms him. During which time there are some stories of him cheerfully encouraging the other captured knights, and befriending one particularly surly knight. It’s all very . . . Inquisition-Deficient.

So our director’s version was not what I was expecting: A fellow prisoner going to his death for heresy covertly passes Francis his contraband bible. Francis exclaims: “It’s in the vernacular!” Amazed by the possibility of reading the scriptures himself, he becomes a new man – and is eventually tortured and left for dead because he is caught reading the forbidden bible to another prisoner.

Did this happen in real life? Because I’m seeing nothing in any biography I read, including the Ignatius Press study guide that came with the film. Awaiting evidence to support these claims (I’m ready to be corrected!) this is why I’m giving the film a low orthodoxy-rating. There’s a necessary amount of could-have-happened pretending that goes with any dramatization of a historical figure; but these accusations, if fictional as I think they are, cross the line into slander. Not to mention gratuitous sadistic-voyeurism.

(There are not lingering torture scenes. We hear brief sound effects, see the set where the torture is going to take place — and see discarded bodies tossed into a pile. Francis’s father comes and claims his son’s body from that pile.)

From there we get one more set of just plain weird fake-biography. Francis comes home and succumbs to the long illness well-known to history. Now in the written versions of the saint’s life, we see a young man who struggles to work out his vocation for a time after his recovery. He attempts to become a knight again, but is turned away; he gives alms, but continues to live in the world and cavort with his friends, albeit more soberly than before. His charitable fundraising is halting and at times immature. It is a process. (And yes: there are records of temper-tantrums as part of that process.)

In the film, Francis wakes up from his illness, sneaks downstairs, and in one manic episode breaks into his father’s strong-chest and proceeds to throw money and treasures into the streets. It is a violent, mindless rage, made all the worse when the recipients pile-on the tossed-out gold in a melee of their own. Conversion-as-psychosis.

(Later one of his companions will convert with the same money-tossing-tantrum process, fist-fighting beggars inclusive.)

After that, the movie is mostly just sort of dumb. Members of the nobility and the church hierarchy are played obtuse, arrogant, and one-dimensional. Francis preaches a gospel devoid of any real mention of Jesus Christ. And there is almost zero action.

→ Now that last complaint is a question of taste. I like action. The real life of St. Francis is loaded with action. Our director prefers long dramatic scenes of moodiness. Lots of pained looks, the occasional gaze-of-wonder, and characters who eventually get to say “Now I understand!”. The part where Francis travels the world and builds up a religious order is summarized in a minute-long voice-over in between the early-life dramatic angst and the end-of-life dramatic angst.

So that wasn’t for me. But other people might find it beautiful and moving. Seriously. I’ve discovered most of my smart catholic friends prefer this stuff to my Hardy-Boys type taste. I’m under-artsy. So if you like literary drama, really you might find this film just your cup of tea.

And that’s my review. I watched it once with the English voice-over (not recommended) and made an attempt to view it again in the original Italian (strongly preferred), but didn’t have the patience for a second sitting. [Plus I didn’t want the kids seeing that torture scene again.] Given the egregious nature of the apparent historical errors, I was surprised Ignatius Press put their stamp on this film.

→ I made an honest attempt to check on the facts, but plainly admit I’m not an expert. I will happily retract this review and adjust my orthodoxy-rating if it turns out I overlooked some key historical evidence.  [So somebody please speak up and correct me!  I would really much rather this be a beautiful film that isn’t to my taste, but that I could still recommend to those who do like this style of cinema.]


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