It’s been a while since I bought Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and I don’t remember why I did. I may have found it in a bargain bin and, knowing it was directed by Zeffirelli, figured it was worth a test of my memory. I’d already seen the movie and knew what to expect, so I can’t claim ignorance. This most recent viewing was my third try, but I can’t imagine a fourth because it gets worse every time I watch it. Theoretically a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, the movie is a compendium of late ’60s film making clichés and sclerotic Hippie-era attitudes in the service of a not very subtle desire to drool over the young men who collect around Francis’s quest for spirituality.
There may be worse reasons for making a movie, but there’s still a disconnect between Francis’s message of the virtues of poverty and simplicity on the one hand, and the film’s opulent surface on the other. If there is a less chaste film maker than Franco Zeffirelli, I’m not aware of him or her. Aided by Ennio Guarnieri’s cinematography and Danilo Donati’s costumes, he makes the Middle Ages into something between a Hallmark greeting card and an over-upholstered bordello. It’s tough to take an anti-materialist message seriously when every frame of the movie delivering it looks as if it were stuffed by department store window dressers. The penultimate sequence with the Pope is particularly ridiculous, with what seems like hundreds of richly decked out clerics surrounding His Holiness, perched like vultures, waiting to pounce, while overhead the ceiling twinkles. (Yes, really. How Alec Guinness as the Pope keeps a straight face amidst this nonsense is beyond me.)
To discuss these contradictions is, however, to give the film more credit than it deserves. The “message” is never more than an excuse for adoring close-ups of Francis (Graham Faulkner) staring into the camera. In the first half hour or so, when he’s recovering from an unspecified illness, we long for some dialog to relieve us of Faulkner’s strained efforts to appear spiritually stricken. When he does open his mouth, however, the dialog is so banal, you appreciate the silence. No wonder Zeffirelli and company rely on Donovan’s atrocious hippie-dippy music to chime in every few minutes, as further demonstration of Francis’s “relevance.” (To be “relevant” was a big deal in the ’60s and early ’70s. Looking back on it, I’m not sure anyone ever knew what was meant by the term.)
As far as I know, Brother Sun, Sister Moon was not particularly successful at the box office. That isn’t for lack of pandering to contemporary expectations however, which might be the one accidentally redeeming feature of the movie. As it grovels laboriously to prove how hip and up to date it is, it demonstrates not just the opposite but even more forcefully shows what happens when current fashions are taken for timeless truths.