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Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Francis and Clare had a spiritual love Francis and Clare had a spiritual love

"'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free;" the refrain to this old Shaker song kept circling in my head as I watched Franco Zeffirelli's masterpiece once again, after all these years. Brother Sun, Sister Moon might be called naive by the cynics, but it has the depth of wisdom and the purity of innocence--key ingredients for any kind of rejuvenation. Indeed, as the Bible says, we must become like little children if we hope to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Francesco, played by the delicately handsome Graham Faulkner, is sick to the body, sick to the soul. He has just returned from the wars, and the experience has shattered his imago mundi. His mother slowly nurses him back to health, but it is a little bird that finally draws him out of his sick bed as he experiences life anew. He becomes what used to be known as "touched," which is actually an apt description of the process of rebirth experienced by this well-to-do young man of Assisi, circa 1200 A.D. You guessed it, this is the story of Francis of Assisi, who went from riches to rags and was much later canonized by the Church for the miraculous way in which he embraced life and all living things.

One of Zeffirelli's collaborators on the screenplay was Lina Wertmuller, who went on to direct Swept Away, and a number of other outstanding films of her own. Cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri must have had classical arts training judging by the way he composed the most exquisitely beautiful shots of meadows filled with poppies, causing our hearts to flutter along with the butterflies. The attention to detail in the art direction and costuming makes this one of the best historical films ever made, designed to elevate our spirits, rather than drown them in the blood of battlefields, à la Braveheart.

Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker in Brother Sun, Sister MoonGraham Faulkner and Judi Bowker in Brother Sun, Sister MoonFrancesco meets Clare, played by the delicately beautiful Judi Bowker, and he immediately recognizes a kindred soul. Theirs is a love that transcends the flesh and cuts directly to the spirit. Francesco's father, Pietro, played by the outstanding character actor Lee Montague, is a greedy textile merchant who has profited greatly from the war, and who exploits his workers under miserable conditions. Francesco's vulnerability is his downfall at home, when he leads these wretched serfs from their underground sweatshops into the sunshine for a brief respite, arousing his father's anger. This anger turns to rage, when his son proceeds to throw his precious fabrics to the rabble in the streets, preaching liberation from possessions as the way to salvation. 

No wonder he chooses to give away his father's costly cloths--in a previous scene Francesco nearly suffocates from the heavy gold brocade that he's made to wear around his head and neck to church. It's a subtle reminder of the armour he was expected to wear as a soldier. Carrying the metaphor further, when Francesco finally makes it to Rome, the Church fathers are also weighed down by their heavy golden ceremonial vestments, which keep them from living the true meaning of Christ's teachings: "Look at the lilies of the fields, not even Solomon in all his glory..."

In the most memorable scene of the film, Francesco sheds his clothing as he explains to the overweight bishop in front of the whole town: "I want to be happy, to live like the birds in the sky, to feel the purity that they experience. Man was not made for loveless toil. Man is a spirit, he has a soul. That is what I want to recapture." He walks out of Assisi, as naked as a jaybird, but as regal as any king.

He makes it his life's mission to restore an old Church, where the crucified Christ has his eyes open, as opposed to the one in town wearing the gold crown, with his eyes closed. At first, he has only beggars to help him, but his challenge to the established order soon draws some of his boyhood friends, sons of Assisi's elite, to join him in his barefoot, begging bowl existence. "Let yourselves be built as living stones into a spiritual temple," he says to some exceptionally cut blocks from a quarry, but he might as well be addressing his followers. Clare joins the band, after getting her hair shorn, and the rebuilt church becomes a centre of worship for the shepherds, the farmers, and the poor.

"If you want your dream to be, take your time, go slowly, do a few things and do them well, heartfelt work goes truly." Folksinger Donovan did the music and sings the songs, in what is probably the best work of his career. Francesco's glowing eyes are full of loving kindness as he tends to his flock--whether lifting heavy stones or washing the afflicted--but they fill with tears when the fat bishop's soldiers set fire to his church and murder its defenders. He wants to know what he did wrong, and is willing to walk to Rome for an answer.

Alec Guinness plays Pope Innocent III, in a crowning performance. The wealth and the power of the papacy are no match for the truth carried by the hermits from Assisi. "Set your mind on God's Kingdom, do not store your treasures here on earth," Francesco tells the assembled notables, and the Pope is touched by the power of his simplicity. "Too often we're preoccupied with original sin, we forget about original innocence." These last scenes in the film are masterfully staged, as is the whole production, making Brother Sun, Sister Moon a joy to the eye and ear.

Being that it's undoubtedly one of the best films ever made, one wonders why so few video outlets actually carry it. Perhaps with the onset of Netflix.com, we'll have more access to such classic films, whenever we choose to watch them!

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A song from Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
Last modified on Tuesday, 26 July 2011 15:39

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