Monday, May 6, 2013

Too bad there's no Anne Francis

What's left of the Fox Movie Channel has, as I've stated on several occasions, a policy of howing their movies several times in a relatively short time frame. One good thing about this for me is that it gives me an opportunity to watch a movie, and then have it relatively fresh in my mind when I go to blog about a few days or a week later when it shows up again on the schedule. Yesterday, for example, I had the chance to see Francis of Assisi. It's airing again tomorrow (May 7) at 9:45 AM, with a further airing at 9:45 AM on Saturday (May 11).

The movie starts off promisingly, with a stirring enough score by Mario Nascimbene playing over the opening credits, which are in a retro-medieval typeface all superimposed over visuals of paintings of St. Francis of Assisi and what are presumably scenes from his life. The fact that I make a point of mentoining the opening credits, unfortunately, serves as a warning: the rest of the movie doesn't quite live up to this standard. After the credits, we soon meet Francis (Bradford Dillman), in the time before he receives the calling to become a proselytizing figure and spread his view of Christianity. He's Francis Bernardone, the son of a fairly wealthy merchant (Eduard Franz) in Assisi at the beginning of the 13th century. His parents hope to make a match for him in the form of Clare (Dolores Hart), daughter of a wealthy family, who happily enough seems sincerely to like Francis. But Assisi is one of the many city-states of medieval Italy, the country not being united like England or France. So there are wars on, and Francis' friend Count Paolo (Stuart Whitman) calls on Francis to help him fight the enemy.

Francis goes off, but soon hears voices, which we are to presume is the voice of God, telling Francis to turn back, which he eventually does, and which gets him arrested for desertion, along with causing a bit of tension with his father. Clare impresses upon Paolo to have the prisoners pardoned. Francis after being released once again hears God's voice, this time telling him to build the church, which he takes literally as a call to rebuild a ruined church, and so starts begging the townsfolk for stones to build the church. Francis' devotion moves many of the people of Assisi to help him by donating stones, and even some to give up their worldly goods and join Francis in building the church.

Everybody except Paolo, it seems. Paolo is in some ways happy that Francis, in giving up worldly goods, has also given up Clare, as Paolo has had his eyes on her. But Paolo doesn't get why Francis would do any of the other things, and thinks he can just shake some sense into Francis. Meanwhie, Francis' order keeps growing, to the point that the Pope (Finlay Currie) makes it an official order, and gives Francis the task of trying to make peace with the Saracens in the Holy Land, led by sultan Pedro Armendáriz. But while Francis is away on his mission, the order he founded starts to change....

Francis of Assisi has a lot of problems, much of which I think is down to the script. Francis was canonized as a saint a few years after his death, so I suppose the real Francis acted saintly in life. But boy is that saintliness slathered on with a trowel here. Francis is the patron saint of animals, and there are a couple of scenes that would almost fit in better in The Beastmaster, such as a scene of Arabs siccing leopards on Francis, only for Francis to tame them because he's so darn charming, or something. To be fair, that perfection is shown to be harmful in a way, as his rules for living, which could be OK for twelve men, won't scale up to thousands. But even here, the friar who runs the order while Francis is off in Egypt, is portrayed as simply grasping for power. Couldn't everybody reach a compromise to be self-sufficient, but very modestly?

Stuart Whitman is another weak point. He, far more than anybody else in the cast, comes across as being totally ill-suited to playing a character in a medieval movie, with his manner of speaking and charging through his scenes. That, and Paolo is presented almost as a drip even more dull than Ralph Bellamy -- what on earth could he possibly think Clare would see in him? It shouldn't come as any surprise to him that Clare decides to join Francis in forming what is now the Sisters of St. Clare. Dolores Hart, playing Clare, does well enough, but there's a sense of irony considering that Hart in real life was soon to go on and become a nun herself. Also worth seeing is Cecil Kellaway as a cardinal who eventually joins the Franciscans.

Francis of Assisi the movie was based on a book commissioned by the Catholic Church, so I guess one has to be fair that a hagiography has to be expected. But one can't help but wonder that there's a much more interesting story about Francis to be told that hasn't been told in this movie; specifically, the portion in Africa and the struggle over the future of the order deserve a better treatment. I haven't seen any of the later movies dealing with Francis' life, so I don't know if they present it better. That's not to say Francis of Assisi is terrible; it's just mediocre. The movie has received a DVD release, although I don't know if any of the releases are still in print.

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