For the 1995 commemoration of the 100th year of cinema the Pontifical Council for Social Communications created three lists of “Some Important Films.” Francesco was among those included on the list titled “Religion.” Clearly that makes sense but it well could have gone on the “Art” list.
This is the second film I had the privilege to see thanks to Film Movement’s new line of repertory releases referred to simply as Film Movement Classics. Perhaps more so than The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe Francesco shows the worth of repertory lines that bring overlooked gems to the fore anew. There really cannot be enough outlets such as these available.
Francesco tells a story of the life of St. Francis of Assisi but this is no rote cradle-to-grave tale but rather remains a fairly focused account of his spiritual awakening, the inception of his brotherhood, and the personal and theistic struggles he faces after having been granted permission from Pope Innocent III to formalize his order.
Yet there is a simple austerity in Francis’ ways, a kind and gentle nature, one that embraces and accepts all humanity and strives only to approximate himself to divinity and nature that makes this a tale that’s universally accessible, and not merely one for the devoutly religious. Aside from this necessary focus another of the film’s strengths is not falling into any divisive tactics and tells of the conflicts Francis faced with a respectable semblance of distance.
This ability to portray a man of God who preaches in a film that doesn’t preach to its audience is most admirable. Furthermore, Cavani’s cinematic stylings in this tale make this an engaging experience in purely aesthetic terms. The production design is rightly award-winning, the score from Vangelis, as per usual is a standout, and fits in an anachronistic way that should make Moroder jealous, and features a sensitive, soft-spoken and brilliant performance by Mickey Rourke in an unlikely and inspired bit of casting.
Also, noteworthy about this release is that it could be seen as definitive cut of the film. Not only has this film been unavailable in the US for many years but it is a new 133-minute version. This is a significant improvement on the original US release (104 minutes); and is reportedly a more disciplined, effective version than the 150-minute Italian release.
Francesco is a film I had not even heard of, much less seen, and one I was glad to have a gander at. I’m also thankful this is the first full version of St. Francis’ life I took in. While any one can identify with his naturalist tendencies and love of birds, this earnest devout portrayal; a man fighting peaceably for a belief in conducting oneself, he firmly believes can inspire all and I can see why he continues to have such a following.
The bonus materials on this disc are a bit lacking compared to Film Movement Classic’s prior release, but there is still some good to be found.
The essays included are welcome. One is from the filmmaker Liliana Cavani on the unusual tale that to her to create her works on Francis, this one especially; and a take from critic Aaron Hillis, which fills in more background information.
Also included is a truncated press conference from Cannes, which almost would’ve been better off being omitted. It’s four minutes long, incomplete, and pack with overly-‘80s Rourke and the kinds of questions you would expect a Hollywood star like Rourke to get there.
Francesco is a wonderfully re-presented title that should delight viewers for secular and holy reasons alike.