Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)


Let's talk about the 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a biographical movie on St. Francis of Assisi directed by Franco Zeffirreli, the Italian homosexual director who would later go on to win fame with Jesus of Nazareth. This is one of those movies you either love or you hate. When I was a new Catholic, coming to the firm solidity of the ancient Faith from the troubled waters of the world, I loved this film. The joy of Francis as depicted in the movie spoke deeply to me and was relevant to my own struggles. As I have matured in the faith, I have come to see this film is extremely deficient in many very important aspects. So, let's go back to 1972 and look at the good and the bad in Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

First, what do I like about this film? And there are some things I do like. The cinematography is beautiful. This film, despite its age, is visual candy, with lots of broad shots of the gorgeous Umbrian countryside and medieval Assisi. I also think this is the only film about St. Francis that I have seen which depicts him and his followers as dirty and ragged as they probably were.

Despite some of the historical inaccuracies (Bishop Guido is depicted as being against Francis' mission when in reality he was a great supporter), I have always found the scene where Francis disrobes and gives his clothes back to his father to be profoundly touching. Some of the scenes in which the reformed Francis, emaciated and devoted to Poverty, interacts with his old friends who struggle to understand his conversion are also of great benefit and present Francis' radical devotion well. The actors who play Francis and Clare (Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker) are just right; their acting is superb - every deficiency can be credited to the script. All throughout the film, there are little nuggets of beauty and truth that a determined viewer can pick out and be edified by.

I say a "determined viewer" because there is also a great deal wrong with this film. The biggest critique is that the whole mood of the film is washed in the counter-cultural spirit of the late-19060's and early 70's. Francis is a flower child, and his intense longing for God and for sanctity are not adequately depicted in the film. Rather, simplicity becomes an end in and of itself, as opposed to simplicity and poverty as a means of union with God. Grace is active in the film through the conversion of Francis, but the film is notable lacking in any supernaturalism. Francis does not perform a single miracle, and the tone is marred by a kind of Pelagianism - we can build a society of human brotherhood here on earth if we all work hard enough at it. The Francis character from the film has been compared to a hippie.

There is a decidedly anti-authority message; every authority in the film (Pietro de Bernadone, Bishop Guido, the Church Hierarchy) is presented in a negative light - with the exception of Innocent III (played by Alec Guiness), and even he does not turn around until the very end. Francis' clash is thus not so much against worldliness and sin as against authority and tradition; there is a scene where Francis leaves Mass prematurely because of some sort of anti-formalism; he leaves Mass to go play in the fields, something the real Francis would have found abhorrent.

There are some serious historical problems. I mentioned Bishop Guido. When the Franciscans celebrate Mass, it is showed as a versus populum Mass served from a table altar, such as was common in 1972, but not in 1215. There is one scene where the local bishop sends troops to close the Franciscan church and murder some of the Franciscans, which certainly never happened.

Then there is the music. The score for this film is performed by the Scoth balladist Donovan, and the soundtrack is perhaps the element of the film which evokes the most criticism. If you have not heard Donovan, its hard to explain him; I think the producers believed the troubadour tradition of the 12th century would be admirably served by employing a modern troubadour. The results are just kind of, well, weird. Granted, I do not think the soundtrack is as bad as others. There are some songs in there that are kind of catchy, even moving in the right contexts, but still, it is a bit odd.

From a Traditionalist Catholic standpoint, the negatives in this film outweigh the positives. The real value in this film lies not so much in its biographical depiction of Francis as much as a statement of the mores of the Church in 1972. I do think there are some good things about this movie, so I do not give it an unreserved condemnation; this film was actually pivotal in my own conversion to Catholicism; this film was actually my first exposure to St. Francis. But ultimately the ecclesiological vision it presents is gravely defective. An astute parent might want to play this film for their teens and discuss these ecclesiological questions: How are the natural and supernatural ends of man depicted in this film? What does the Church's teaching say on the matter? How is grace evident in the film and in the life of the historic Francis? Why is the counter-cultural spirit of the 60's so destructive despite its ostensibly good motives of "brotherhood" and peace?

As a film, I give this movie 1 out 3 tiaras. There is some beauty. There are some touching points. Costumes and cinematography are well done. But as a biography of Francis it falls flat, and it absolutely fails to capture the spirit of the 13th century. The only spirit this movie captures is that of 1972.