Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"O Great God!" Humility and Camera Movement in Roberto Rossellini's the Flowers of St. Francis

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"O Great God!" Humility and Camera Movement in Roberto Rossellini's the Flowers of St. Francis

Article excerpt

One of St. Francis of Assisi's chief characteristics is his humbleness. His communion with lepers and sermons to birds are legendary because they demonstrate his ability to identify with the lowest of creatures. It comes as no surprise then that films representing the saint try to do so in ways as humble as the saint himself. Possibly the best example of one such film is Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis.1 Critical responses to the film have noted parallels between Francis's humble life and Rossellini's style. For example, in one of the movie's first reviews, Amos Vogel argued that the film's "acting, camerawork and editing are intentionally humble."2 Archer Weinstein's 1950 review for the N.Y. Post agreed, claiming that the film displayed a style that was exceedingly "humble."3 This trend established by initial critics has stuck with Flowers more than six decades later. In one analysis after another, scholars see a connection between the film's form and its content, considering the way Rossellini uses humble style to represent a humble saint.

With this kind of reception, Flowers is ripe for an analysis in the field of Theology and Film because scholars in this discipline pay particular attention to how films make theological arguments through visual elements. They seek to add cinema as a legitimate medium for theological inquiry, suggesting that alongside scripture, sermons, and summas, film can provide ways to comprehend the mysteries of faith. Those working in this field propose that in addition to writers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther directors like Bresson, Buñuel, and Rossellini make interesting assertions about Christian belief that are worth exploring. Whereas theologians made their claims with verbal speeches, essays, and books, directors employ visual editing, camera movement, and lighting.

But this prospect of using film as a new, contemporary, and visual medium for theological discourse has proven both promising and difficult for those in Theology and Film. While proclaiming to analyze the theological implications of film, few in this field actually analyze these movies as film. Most works in this discipline examine character, dialogue, and plot-narrative elements that lend themselves to literary analysis but fail to address the visual elements particular to cinema. Many have bemoaned this problem, challenging scholars in Theology and Film to actually analyze film as film, to go beyond narrative analysis to consider cinematographic analyses as well.4 The "visual humility" of Rossellini's Flowers provides an excellent opportunity to do just that. To consider the text as one that suggests arguments about the nature of Christian humility through visual humility, this article seeks to closely analyze Flowers's filmic qualities for their theological implications. More specifically, it examines the "leper scene," the moment that best demonstrates Francis's humility, and considers how things like editing, perspective, and camera movement comment on humbleness even while representing it. By analyzing the characteristics particular to film that address things in ways no other medium can, this essay argues that The Flowers of St. Francis's visual humility challenges traditional notions of the Franciscan humility it depicts.

Before examining the link between Francis's humbleness and Rossellini's humble style, it is necessary to define the characteristics of this "humble style." Perhaps the first would include its use of ordinary settings. Opulent studios used closed sets but Rossellini filmed on location, and, rather than striking scenery, Flowers features bland pastures. Throughout the film, no prairie looks different from the next, creating a monotonous landscape, but over time this flatness becomes soothing. Mary P. Wood suggests this much when she argues that this simple setting illustrates Rossellini's politics. In Italian Cinema, she claims, "The spirituality or humanism which so many critics identify as a defining element of Rossellini's work" is linked to the "sparseness of the sets of Francesco. …

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