The release of Franco Zeffirelli’s hippified take on the life of Saint Francis, 1973’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, coincides with the theatrical release of The Passion of the Christ. While the latter is a punishing, self-important litany of torture, the other transcends its Catholic specificity to find spiritual truth through humility.
More specifically, Zeffirelli’s film links Christianity with the counter-cultural ’60s. The movie’s humane take on brotherly love, so generous that it even forgives the Catholic Church, ends with the meeting of Pope Innocent III (Alec Guinness) and Francesco (Graham Faulkner), wherein the Pope blesses Francesco and supplicates himself before him.
The film opens with Francesco returned from fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia, with the medieval equivalent of shellshock. He lies on his bed attended by nurses and hallucinating vividly, recalling the events of his youth leading up to the horrors of battle. Before going off to fight Perugia Francis was a boisterous, arrogant youth, much enamored of his textile manufacturing father Pietro (Lee Montague) and Mother (Valentina Cortese) and sharing their passion for wealth and prestige. He and his family see the ensuing war mainly as a chance for profit via loot. We see all this through Francesco’s fevered flashbacks, and when he finally wakes, his old life has been washed away. He’s open to the songs of birds and the splendor of flora. His father’s obsession with gold now fills him with revulsion. He even freaks out in church, where the poor are made to stand in the back while he and other wealthy sorts sit in the front.
Eventually, Francesco casts off Pietro’s job offers, throwing the old man’s textiles out the window and heading, naked and longhaired, into the wilderness. Here he will start his own poor-friendly church, replete with a beautiful flower child, Claire (Judi Bowker) and a gathering of bearded followers. The local bishop is upset, especially when all but the richest members of his flock are soon attending Francesco’s church instead of his. And so he sends soldiers to burn his humble rival’s church to the ground, killing one of Francesco’s followers in the process.
The analogies to the Vietnam era and the anti-war movement are all too apparent. Zeffirelli’s previous film, Romeo and Juliet (1968) was canonized as a counter-cultural touchstone three years previously: the tale of two attractive young hedonists being driven to suicide by their war-crazed elders was a perfect metaphor for the times. The story of Saint Francis — paralleling those of Vietnam vets turned war protesters (à la Ron Kovic, whose autobiography was the basis for Oliver Stone’s 1989 film, Born on the Fourth of July) — must have seemed a perfect follow-up. Francis’ bedridden hallucinations resemble a heavy acid trip, and his rejection of his father’s plastic fantastic Madison Avenue gig for a communal church evokes images of so many young panhandlers in the Haight.
Fusing the classical allure of Romeo and Juliet with the righteous resistance of psychedelia, Brother Sun, Sister Moon might be grouped with U.S. films like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy (both 1969). At the same time, Brother Sun also calls up Renaissance art, in lovingly photographed images of Assisi and the Vatican.
The film goes so far as to include a selection of syrupy, rather ancient-sounding songs by British folkie Donovan. Using period instruments, Donovan’s performances turn the film at times into one of those early ’70s romantic odysseys, with a pair of barefoot young lovers skipping through the flowers, during Francesco’s “conversion.” Donovan sings, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon / I seldom see you, I can’t hear your tune / Preoccupied with selfish misery / Brother Wind and Sister Air / Open my eyes to visions pure and fair, that I might see the glories around me.” Such lyrics sum up the movie’s spiritual message, more or less an echo of Jesus’ famous edict in the Book of Thomas: “The kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it.”
The film literalizes (and celebrates) this manifestation of God’s spirit in “nature,” condemning institutional indirection along the way. When Francesco climbs onto the roof outside his window to follow a bird, then goes skipping through the meadows, alive to all of nature and Donovan, our first instinct may be to laugh. But mock this sweet and noble sentiment at your own peril. That Francesco’s denunciation of worldly possessions and unabashed love of love and faith seem corny should make us as ashamed as Pope Innocent at film’s end, when he bends to kiss Francesco’s dirty bare feet. Such love is what is best in man, or so Zeffirelli reminds us.
With its brilliant cinematography by Ennio Guarnieri and cast of pretty faces, the film is like a painting come to life. Brother Sun comes between two of Zeffirelli’s masterpieces, Romeo and Juliet and the six-hour TV miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth (1977). In all these films, Zeffirelli depicts old stories with a modern sensibility and timeless sense of spirituality. One of the important breakthroughs of the flower power movement was perhaps the infusion of eastern spiritual thought into the west, and in both Brother Sun and his Jesus Zeffirelli finds the universal thread of spiritual thought that connects both east and west: the desire for transcendence through selflessness and love. Those who cry “heresy” or “corny” might think of the old Zen koan where the Master points at the moon, but the students only look at his finger.
Zeffirelli points our eyes directly at the beauty of the moon, while Catholic dogma (not unlike Gibson’s new film) screams for attention, accusing all the world of heresy if it dares to look away, and the jaded hipsters out there that can’t get past that corny Donovan score miss a profound message that just might make them appreciate the sun, moon, birds, and flowers as the wonders they are.