Brother Sun, Sister Moon (DVD, 2009, Value Edition)

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Extraordinary in many ways (not all of them good!)

Sep 11, 2000 (Updated May 18, 2011)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:locations, cinematography, over-the-top costumes, Alec Guiness's pope

Cons:long and slow, major historical distortions, Donovan's mind-numbing soundtrack

The Bottom Line: looks good, very 60s flower children precedent-seeking


Franco Zeffirelli's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" has become a cult film for some left-over flower children and for some admirers of St. Francis of Assisi. No one would argue about the beauty of the cinematography, both interiors and exteriors, but other aspects are more open to question and criticism.

I first saw the film (in English with Spanish subtitles) in southern Mexico during the mid-1970s. I thought it was beautiful to look at, but very slow. I thought that the actor playing St. Francis (his name was Graham Faulkner, though he certainly looked Italian) was almost as vapid as Donovan's soundtrack (which is very thin stuff). The wait for Alec Guiness's pope to appear seemed very long

Seeing it a quarter of a century later on video, I liked it better. It still seems slow, though I was impressed that the convalescent Francesco speaks not a word until shouting "No!" 36 minutes into the film. I was also impressed that the ending of the film also involves a parallel long wait for the film's one bona fide star (the late, great Sir Alec) to speak.

I still think that the middle drags and that the whole approach of the silm is suspiciously pandering to the youth culture of the late 1960s (the film was shot in 1970 and by the time of its premiere in 1972 its simple flower power view was already dated, as Zefferlli's memoirs acknowledge).

Like Zefferelli's "Romeo and Juliet" the leads in "Brother Sun" are beautiful young unknowns. They are also quite clearly misunderstood young flower children who want to bliss out in communal living. (Also like them and the English-speaking fresh new faces that Fellini found for "Satyricon" and Antonioni found for "Zabriskie Point" and Zeffirelli's later "Jesus of Nazareth" they disappeared quickly, in Faulkner's case immediately after this film in which he is in every scene, often in very tight close-up. One wonders if casting Al Pacino and Isabella Rosselini, both then unknown, would have ended their careers at the beginnings as it did Faulkner's!)

I don't know where the snow and the badlands they cross en route to Rome, but the countryside looks Umbrian. And gorgeous. The film was shot partly in Assisi, partly in San Gimignano and Gubbio, some in studios in Rome, The papal court was filmed in the Sicilian eleventh-century cathedral of Monreale with its Byzantine interior. (The movie made me want to go to Sicily and see if for myself, which I did.)

The costumes and cinematography are voluptuous, even if the most memorable scene is Francis stripping off his fine clothes in the square in front of the bishop's palace and giving them back to his father before going naked out the city gates.

Francis rising from what everyone thought was his deathbed, to catch and kiss a house sparrow, balancing perilously along the ridge of the very high roof of his father's house is also very memorable, as are the fields of poppies, and the pomp of the papal audience (providing maximal contrast to the ragged band of Franciscans come to submit and seek guidance from the head of the universal church.

The scenario's historical accuracy is particularly misleading in regard to Bishop Guido burning the church and (Saint) Clare living with the brothers in Christ. Also in the literally fabulous costume design for the princes of the Church: the politicians in the Vatican (and Bishop Guido back in Assisi). They are truly Babylonian in their and splendor and obvious indifference to the humble carriers of the True Faith (when the Franciscans come to see and submit to Pope Innocent III,with echoes of the Jews in their Babylonian captivity).

In his memoirs, Zeffirelli recalls that "one British writer after another produced a script—we must have had twenty in all. . . . The problem was that they kept seeing Francis in Protestant terms. To them he was a pre-Lutheran revolutionary overthrowing the authority of the Pople, whereas the opposite was the case." It seems to me that the script that Zeffirelli, Lina Wertmuller and Suco Cecci d'Amico (the last scripted a number of the later Visconti films) produced retains more rebellion at the theocratic medieval society than subservience to "the establishment" — which was represented in a very late-1960s way.

From Zeffirelli's memoirs, I also learned that before Donovan, Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen had attempted to collaborate on music for the film. Trying to imagine the music they might have produced boggles my mind. Listening to the music Donovan did produce could easily put me to sleep. I am astounded to learn that there are people who adore the film's music. I suppose it is easier to love the movie if one does, but I continue to think that there is more sustenance in a single honeysuckle blossom than in Donovan's score (and it not that I loathe Donovan, either; indeed, "Catch the Wind" is one of my favorite 1960s songs).

(For another, less hippie, b&w Italian telling of Francis's start, there's Roberto Rosselini's 1950 "Francesco, hiullare di Dio," on a Criterion DVD as "The Flowers of St. Anthony.")


Recommend this product? Yes


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