Francesco, the son of a rich merchant of Assisi and now a prisoner of war, is being led into captivity when he hears screaming behind him. The people who are not fortunate enough to have families to ransom them are being killed. We pass one of them, who is being flayed alive, just after seeing the masses of dead killed earlier. But this particular moment, when Francesco suddenly understands how arbitrarily he will remain alive as others die, marks the moment he begins his transformation into a figure we know: Francis of Assisi.
Francesco is a 1989 movie by the Italian director Liliana Cavani, who has filmed the story of St. Francis three times. (Francesco is her second attempt; the other two, to the best of my knowledge, have not been released in the United States.) When I watched Francesco I was unaware of its reputation, in some quarters, as worse-than-horrible, but I did find it an odd film. Its American release was cut from a running time of 150 minutes to a little over 130 minutes, which means the film makes less and less sense as it careens toward its end. Francis is portrayed as a sort of proto-Protestant figure in ways that are at odds with his submission to ecclesial authority. While St. Clare (here, “Chiara”) also plays a role in the film and is usefully and totally unsexualized, she is the only woman to follow Francis, and the Poor Clares simply do not exist. It also feels like a much older movie than it is—a kind of throwback to the life-of-Christ biopic in its visuals and its strangely cast, conspicuously beautiful lead (Mickey Rourke, playing a very well-nourished and muscular Francis). But all of these flaws conceded, I still liked the movie. It’s interested in holiness in a serious way.
Cavani’s movies usually have this worse-than-bad reputation; she embraces a kind of total, transcendent tastelessness in her pursuit of what interests her. She is most famous for the spectacularly offensive 1974 movie The Night Porter, in which an SS officer (Max, played by Dirk Bogarde) and the concentration-camp victim he sexually abused (Lucia, played by Charlotte Rampling) are thrown together again after the war and begin an affair. In The Night Porter, a secret society of ex-Nazi officials put each other on trial by gathering all the evidence and witnesses they can find and systematically destroying them. They find this therapeutic and healing; not only do they experience no remorse, they are all trapped in reenactments of their pasts. Whatever they pretend they are achieving is actually accomplished between the two lovers, who in reuniting seem to find a way of genuinely reckoning with what he has done and what has been done to her. Thus, by the end of the movie, they are killed.
Much of Cavani’s work is either unavailable in the United States or hard to find, but the three films of hers that I have seen—Francesco, The Night Porter, and Ripley’s Game—are all interested in luck and morality, in brutality and justice, and in innocence as a prized but elusive quality. In Ripley’s Game, a man who insults the international criminal Tom Ripley is manipulated by him into murdering a stranger for money. “Innocence,” Ripley muses, setting the price at which he thinks the man will do it, “is expensive.” Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to Francesco.
If innocence is one of Cavani’s interests, what makes her approach to it distinctive is that innocence is not a quality one has and then loses forever. Francesco is a story about acquiring innocence, which is indeed an expensive thing. For Francis, it requires not only stripping himself of money and possessions and exposing himself to public humiliation, but also inflicting emotional brutality on his father and mother, who are portrayed by Cavani as essentially good people who believe in generosity toward the poor but who are bewildered by their son’s coldness toward them. The scene in which Francis strips himself of all his clothes to break any ties he has to his father was so sad that I had to switch the movie off and resume it another day.
Francesco doesn’t judge. He simply knows that he must do this to go on living. However, in Cavani’s movie, this is still not enough. He has to be further stripped. He rolls around naked in the snow in a highly uncomfortable scene in which he is either forcing himself into a position of maximal pain or actually trying to screw the landscape. He watches others follow his principles and then begin to quarrel with him and his ideas. After renouncing his family, he has to return to comfort his dying father. He sickens, weakens, is plagued by doubt, and then, finally, receives the stigmata and dies. It’s only when he receives the stigmata that Francesco becomes innocent. As Clare says in the movie’s closing lines: “I thought that love had made his body identical to the beloved’s. And I asked myself if I would ever be capable of loving that much.”