Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Solar Brother

It's the feast day today of St. Francis of Assisi, and earlier this evening I marked the occasion by watching Franco Zeffirelli's 1972 film about Francis, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

Here's a little of what Wikipedia has to say about this film:

Featuring Zeffirelli's signature lush photography, Brother Sun, Sister Moon was conceived and executed in much the same visual manner as his Academy Award-winning adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1968). The film attempts to draw parallels between the work and philosophy of Saint Francis and the ideology that underpinned the worldwide counterculture movement of the 1960s and early '70s. The film is also known for the score composed by Riz Ortolani. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.

Following are excerpts from various reviews of Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun Sister Moon (1972) is one of the most popular and accessible biopics of St. Francis of Assisi available, and an important exemplar of the ever-burgeoning religion-and-film genre. Despite its thirty-year vintage, it is generating renewed academic interest as a legitimate form of religious expression and contemporary visual piety. This celluloid hagiography was Zeffirelli's first movie following his disfiguring car accident and quasi-mystical recommitment to Catholicism. The critical literature was reviewed and the film explicated through the lens of humanist film criticism. Zeffirelli had constructed the medieval St. Francis as a 1960s hippie and Christ-figure with a strong autobiographical flavour. Yet, this stylistic portrayal did not greatly diminish the historical St. Francis' passionate commitment to nature, anti-materialism and christic holiness. It was concluded that Zeffirelli had successfully repeated St. Francis' 13th century revolutionary message for the 20th century using the popular medium of our day.

– Anton Karl Kozlovic
"Saint Cinema: The Construction of St. Francis of Assisi
in Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)
The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
Vol. 2: Fall 2002

Above: Francis (Graham Faulkner) renounces his worldly possessions,
much to the shock and dismay of his parents.

Graham Faulkner is fine and gorgeous as the solar brother, Saint Francis. His bright-eyed face contorts with spiritual ecstasy like Harpo Marx crossed with Sam Rockwell. As the lunar sister, Judi Bowker is a wispy knockout. She's so frail and beautiful with such long gorgeous blond hair that for me the biggest tragedy of Christendom is when they decide to cut it all off so she can join their muddy little holy order. Would you pick the lilies of the field right in fullest flower? Still, if I came across this nut Francis in the fields outside Assisi, what would I do? Probably join him; lord knows I've joined up with magnetic hippies far dirtier, and for far less noble reasons. Going after God is never a mistake! Following your heart takes guts, and the best Christians are the ones who bow their heads to lions daily. The rest of us forget and run, and are ripped to shreds, lifetime after lifetime.

– Erich Kuersten
"Acid's Greatest #19: Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)"
October 1, 2009

Above: Judi Bowker as Clare of Assisi
in Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a fanciful retelling of the early life of St. Francis of Assisi as conceived by Franco Zeffirelli. As with all of Zeffirelli’s work, it’s beautifully filmed, but this movie contains a number of “conceptual” shots that attempt to bring Francis’ divine revelations to the viewer in a way which may not work for everyone. Also, if you are the sort who likes to have everything explained at some point in a story, you’re probably going to be frustrated.

. . . Perhaps one of the most striking scenes in the entire film occurs when Francis’ completed church is finally open for Mass and is filled with peasants who are clearly in awe of the poor brothers and their humble yet hard-won gift. Meanwhile, the town’s wealthy nobles and merchants gaze around disgruntledly at their own richly decorated and empty church. The spectacular and often grotesque wealth of various churchmen of the time is portrayed in the film via elaborate costumes, which one of my housemates asserted are historically accurate — massive heavy velvet and brocade robes, incredibly uncomfortable-looking standing collars, and giant, bejeweled velvet letters hanging on chains around the neck, like medieval rap stars.

Francis’ struggle to convince the Church that he is in earnest continues through the second half of the film, culminating in a visit to the Pope, where the marked contrast between the barefoot, threadbare monks and the obscenely overdressed cardinals and bishops is most apparent.

. . . If you’re looking for an accurate historical account of the early lives of St. Francis and St. Clare, this is not the movie for you. Nor is it a scathing indictment of the wealthy Catholic Church; religious dogma does not play a strong role in the narrative at all. Its real value lies in being a lush and artistic (but admittedly not very realistic) portrayal of a god-touched person driven by faith and love of nature to consciously turn away from all that he knows and follow his vision of a spiritually rich life. Because of that, it has potential appeal for monastics of many faiths.

– Elizabeth Vongvisith
"Movie Review: Brother Sun, Sister Moon"
Twilight and Fire
July 23, 2009

Above and below: Pope Innocent III (Alex Guinness)
kisses the feet of Francis of Assisi in Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

The release [on DVD] of Franco Zeffirelli’s hippified take on the life of Saint Francis, 1972’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, coincides with the theatrical release of The Passion of the Christ. While the latter is a punishing, self-important litany of torture, the other transcends its Catholic specificity to find spiritual truth through humility.

More specifically, Zeffirelli’s film links Christianity with the counter-cultural ‘60s. The movie’s humane take on brotherly love, so generous that it even forgives the Catholic Church, ends with the meeting of Pope Innocent III (Alec Guinness) and Francesco (Graham Faulkner), wherein the Pope blesses Francesco and supplicates himself before him.

. . . The film literalizes (and celebrates) this manifestation of God’s spirit in “nature,” condemning institutional indirection along the way. When Francesco climbs onto the roof outside his window to follow a bird, then goes skipping through the meadows, alive to all of nature and Donovan, our first instinct may be to laugh. But mock this sweet and noble sentiment at your own peril. That Francesco’s denunciation of worldly possessions and unabashed love of love and faith seem corny should make us as ashamed as Pope Innocent at film’s end, when he bends to kiss Francesco’s dirty bare feet. Such love is what is best in man, or so Zeffirelli reminds us.

– Erich Kuersten
"Moon Vs. Finger"
March 15, 2004

So what became of the "fine and gorgeous" actor who played Francis in Brother Son, Sister Moon?

Well, according to Wikipedia, after his starring role in Zeffirelli's film, Graham Faulkner "virtually retired from acting. He played a small number of very minor roles, but has not been involved in film or television since 1984. He left acting to find stable employment in order to support his family and has worked for a private British bank."

One minor role Faulkner played was that of the young man caught swimming naked with D.H. Lawrence (Ian McKellan) in Christopher Miles' 1981 film, Priest of Love (right). In this particular scene, set in 1917, two British soldiers accuse Lawrence of aiding German submarines! (Mmm . . . somehow I think he had other things on his mind. Things which, let's face it, would have been just as criminal back then.)

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Francis of Assisi: Dancer, Rebel, Archetype
Francis of Assisi: God's Gift to the Church
No Mere Abstraction
Francis of Assisi: The Antithesis of Clericalism and Monarchism
St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality

Recommended Off-site Links:
St. Francis: Loving Across the Boundaries – Kittredge Cherry (Jesus In Love Blog, October 4, 2011).
God Is Not a Christian, Nor a Muslim, Nor a Hindu: Are Religions Becoming Obsolete? – Jayden Cameron (The Gay Mystic, October 4, 2011).


Anonymous said...

Beyond any shadow of doubt 'Brother Son Sister Moon has moved me more than any thing else I have seen.

Graham Faulkner was fantastic and such a real sadness that he retired form acting.

A big thank you Graham


Mel said...

I would love to know if Graham is able to be contacted as he has lifted the spirit of so many peopl with his portrayal of Francis of Assissi.

Forever a genuine fan Graham, thanks a million

Best wishes


Unknown said...

Hey! Thanks for the very colorful review of this little gem of a movie! It made me fall in love with St. Francis - complete and utter lovesick wacko that he was! Although I haven't considered myself "truly" Catholic in a long time, I am still imbued with the tenets of Christianity - you know, the way Jesus taught them - love and inclusion - not derision and exclusion. Anyway, every few years I need a "hit" and I pull this little movie out... From everything I've read, Francis was truly and completely out of his mind. He would defrock at the drop of a hat. How strangely cool is that? He even requested that his brothers undress him completely and place him on the ground when he was dying. They did not accomodate him.

Anonymous said...

He disappeared and went incognito. No facebook, no twitter, no account anywhere to be found. It is like he does not want to be contacted. His role as Francesco touched so many hearts and will leave an indelible mark for generations to come. I know that movie really touched my heart and my soul. My life has changed. I had to watch the movie 3 times. Zefirrelli is brilliant.

Purkitty said...

I don't if you know this, but there were two releases of the film: the 117 English version, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and the 128 Italian version, Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna. There is a 2004 Italian release of this movie on DVD containing both versions, which also has behind the scenes footage and interviews of the dirctor. It is for PAL systems, so it may not show on your TV if you do not have a region free dvd player with PAL to NTSC converter for the US. You can buy this film from Amazon.it. It is worth seeing. The italian version has a differnt editing of the scenes, plus extra footage, so it is like watching a whole differnt movie. It was a pleasant surprise for me, because I only got the Italian version to practice listening to the language. I never expected that it would be a different version with extra footage and behind the scenes takes.

Like the rest of you, I love this film, and it is my Christlike compass. I wish Graham Faulkner would be available to receive all the praise the world wants to give him for his performance, but somehow I think he already knows. I hope he can feel our love and gratitude.


Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks so much for this information, Maria-Elena. It's greatly appreciated. And I too hope that Graham feels all the love and gratitude that so many people have for him and his portrayal of Francis.