While we were in Assisi recently, my friend Katy was reminded of an Italian movie she had seen on the life of Francis — aptly named “Francesco.”  She warned me that it was not always historically accurate, but that the creators had admitted its inaccuracy.  Instead of looking for precise historical accuracy, they were looking to capture the spirit of Francis.  Katy said they had captured that spirit well.

When I spoke to her last week, she was a bit more reserved in her judgment of the movie upon a second viewing.  She had warned me several times of the Clare-Francis relationship, and she reiterated that warning. But she still encouraged me to see it.

I’m glad she did.  On the whole, I really enjoyed the movie.  I thought it really had captured the spirit of Francis quite well.  Gone was the hippy Francis prancing to Donovan of Brother Sun, Sister Moon.  And good riddance.  That was not Francis.

Here we found a Francesco who embraced suffering with joy.  St Francis was no hippy– he laid in thorns, for pete’s sake.  He embracing suffering like a brother.  And the movie captured this wonderfully.  Francesco was happy because he suffered.  The first of the two episodes was pretty dark (again, goodbye fruity Brother Sun).  There was blood and death and battle and torture.  In the end of the movie, there was pain and division and a dark night of the soul.  There was even Francis’ wonderful recounting of what ‘perfect joy’ entailed– rejection, suffering, and torture.  Perfect joy.

However, the movie didn’t just focus on pain and suffering, as if Francis was some sort of masochist.  It portrayed Francesco as a lovable Italian, too — he was happy, carefree, expressive.  He was lovable!  He had an aura of someone you wanted to be with (it helped that he was played by the handsome Roman, Raoul Bova), someone you could see yourself following.  That had to be the way St Francis was in real life.  We all know he was counter-cultural, radical… and yet people followed him.  Why would someone follow him if he was a complete weirdo?  He had to be likable.

I also loved the fact that this movie was made by Italians, in Italy, in Italian.  Francis spoke Italian!  Beautifully! And it adds so much to hear him speak his native tongue.

But… I’m not going to recommend this movie wholesale.  I had plenty of disagreements with it.

First, the whole Francis-Clare relationship.  Clare is one of my favorite saints, so I need her to be portrayed perfectly.   In Francesco, they played up the sexual-tension between the two– a tension that was most likely never there, given their 13 year age difference (the movie, like so many others, portrays them as peers).  One thing that it does provide (and I don’t think this is an original thought… I’m stealing it from Katy…) is to show you that Francis gave up everything.  Sure, Clare was 13 years younger than him.  But there were other young women in Assisi.  Francis was wealthy, happy, good-looking, a troubadour.  While he didn’t give up a romance with Clare, presumably he gave up other women for his new bride, Lady Poverty.  This is probably what the filmmakers were trying to show their viewers.

They correctly showed Chiara as a virtuous young woman performing works of mercy long before Francesco’ conversion.  That is often not mentioned, and I’m glad it was in Francesco. Otherwise, however, I didn’t like their portrayal of Chiara.  She was far too dramatic, unrestrained, and almost intemperate.  She was constantly coming to Francesco (even leaving the convent to do so, something Clare never did.  Francis always came to her), and her familiarity with the brothers (even sleeping outside with them prior to her entrance into the convent) was not only radically anachronistic, but also very un-Clare.

Other inaccuracies weren’t enough to get me riled up, but were disappointing because they were unnecessary.  Portraying San Damiano as being on a mountain rather than in valley, for example, was an error that didn’t add much to the movie and should have been corrected.  Keeping Chiara in the Benedictine convent for most of Francesco’ life — or, at least, not showing her moving to San Damiano with other Poor Ladies– took something away from Clare and her story.

But other inaccuracys — or, rather, omissions– were enough to get me riled up.  Most notably… the absence of the miracle of the San Damiano crucifix.  How could you leave out the most pivotal moment of Francis’ life?!  A few artistic shots of the San Damiano crucifix just doesn’t cut it.   Christ’s words to him were, without a doubt, the defining moment in his ministry.  He had been prepared for his ministry through his imprisonment and convalescence, but he doesn’t know what God is calling him to do until that moment in San Damiano.  This movie seems to focus on various personal experiences in prison that St Francis never had — or, at least, not to anyone’s knowledge.

I think the absence of this miracle is the most glaring example of the greater theme that is missing from Francesco: The Church.  Francis was Francis because of his intense love for Holy Mother Church.  This movie misses that completely.  He is shown praying in San Damiano and once they show Mass being said — but that is it.  The Eucharist was central to Francis’ ministry.  And this is missing.

In the movie, Francesco treats the messenger of the Bishop rather disrespectfully.  He is rather rash towards the Holy Father.  He lacks the submission to the Church, the radical love for the Church.  In real life, Francis throws himself in a pig sty out of extreme obedience to the Holy Father — not accidentally, as in the movie.

At one point, while Francis is suffering in prayer, Clare is told that Francis will have to find the answers “within himself.”  It is as if Francis is above the Church, beyond the Church.  Yes, the Church of Francis was in need of reform– reform that the mendicant Orders were founded to bring.  He was radically different from anything the medieval Church had seen.  He was attempting to follow the Gospel literally, something he was advised against because it was too hard.  But Francis was an intimate part of the Church, an obedient son, not something above and beyond.

St Francis refused to become a priest because he felt he was too unworthy for the office. (He DID become a deacon!)  In Francesco, it seems that his refusal centers on the fact that he believes anyone should be able to preach.  Again, the movie failed to show the true ecclesial nature of Francis’ spirit.

The creators of Francesco made the movie to give young people a “point of reference,” in a culture where they lack just that.  I think they did a beautiful job in recreating the joyful, suffering spirit of Francis.  I only wish they had given the young people a better view of the intimate relationship between Francis and the Church.  It is only because of his union with Holy Mother Church that Francis was able to be that hero for all of us.

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