Some have called Liliana Cavani’s Francesco (1989; DVD 1998) a gritty alternative to Franco
Brother Sun, Sister Moon. And I agree. Zeffirelli, while a brilliant filmmaker, can ruin a
saint. And whatever may be said of Cavani’s work,
Francesco is neither a saccharine nor romantic portrayal of
the 13th century’s radical saint, Francis of Assisi. His sincerity is strikingly beautiful. This movie is based on
Herman Hesse’s book
Francis of Assisi. Cavani’s film won three awards and was nominated for a fourth. The
legendary actor/boxer/dog lover and practicing Catholic, Mickey Rourke, played
Saint Francis. And as a side bar, he credits his Catholic faith to saving his life.

Liliana Cavani.jpg

Cavani, born in 1933 in Capri, is the director of many television and cinematic
productions.  Her religious
tendencies are basically unknown to me but I did hear that she leans or leaned
toward a communist ideology. But I can’t help wondering what really inspired
Cavani to direct a film on such a figure as Francis of Assisi. Certainly it
can’t be the wacky-ness that often surrounds the figure of Francis!

Francesco is an interpretation of the person of the 13th century Umbrian saint, Francis of Assisi. He died in 1226 and founded what is
today called the Franciscans 800 years ago. What the Franciscans looked like in
the 13th century isn’t what they are today. The movie is a series of
flashbacks with various friends telling the story of the man who led them to
Christ. Cavani brings out several central questions that all of us have to
answer viz. our Christian faith: To whom do I belong? Do I belong to these
people, or do I belong to Christ? How do I know and why?

The period in which
the real Francis lived was a chaotic time in secular as well as ecclesial
history. His world was faced with civil strife, wars, disease, extreme poverty
in many sectors, illiteracy not to mention heretical movements tearing the
fabric of faith to pieces. And, let’s also not underestimate the wounds of the
Church faced as a result of heresy: lack of true community, negligence of the
human body, despair, lack of reasonable understanding of the faith and Truth
and no reasonable response to the human reality. Hence, the notion of Francis
rebuilding the Lord’s Church took on significant importance for many people.

Francesco? It has little to do
with the fact that his October 4th feast day is next Sunday. But it
has everything to do with the fact that in our School of Community (Communion
& Liberation’s weekly catechetic meeting) we are reading Father Giussani’
chapter on poverty in volume 2 of Is It Possible to Live This Way?  There we are confronting the real, and
truly theological reality, of possessing without possession. Giussani is
raising the concern of restraining the possibility of grace in our lives but
how we live our lives. So many of us can’t face life in the manner in which it
is given. We create escape mechanisms to mask the real life issues: pain, love,
sorrow, faith, hurt, joy, lack of happiness, etc. Francis gave his whole life
away to another person. He confused his parents and siblings; his friends and
civil authorities were shocked. All could not understand Francis turning on end
what was conventually known as “normal.” He found something wonderful among the
poor that became a contradistinction to the bourgeois normativity of Umbrian
society. Renouncing self and possessions and following Christ crucified became
his “normal.” As Saint Clare says in the movie, God spoke to him again and His
love made Francis’ body identical to the Beloved’s.

St Francis detail.jpg

Cavani deals with poverty
in a gritty manner–it is terrifically human. And she never moralizes poverty or
religious conviction. Even when the pope asks Francis “and what are you
criticizing me for” and Francis says “nothing” we can’t believe our ears. Two
men come back to Francis’ family and friends looking to explain what they
experienced and thinking that the men would point out the ugliness of poverty
and extreme raw life of Francis, they said, “there’s something beautiful
there.” You then realize that
Francis isn’t following “poverty”; he’s following someone; he’s closely
adhering to beauty. But it is not ordinary beauty–it is the beauty of believing that he promises of Christ are true.

Why Francis? Because he points to Christ. His faith,
courage and thinking he could live like Christ is what Giussani wants to
suggest is the reason for our life. Giussani asks, quid animo satis? (what can
satisfy the soul?) It has to be the Gospel at it’s word or all is rubbish. Francis, by the way, is the only person the Church calls an
among the saints.