BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Graham Faulkner,
Judi Bowker, Leigh Lawson, Kenneth Cranham, Alec Guinness
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Audio: English or French monaural
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: March 9, 2004
"Man is a spirit. He has a soul. And that, that is what I want to recapture - my soul."
Giovanni di Bernardone, or Francesco as he was known familiarly, was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant of medieval Assisi. In his youth, Francesco was ambitious and adventurous, and when the drums of war cried for battle against the regional city of Perugia, he rode off willingly to war with great precipitance. The war proved disastrous for the young men of Assisi, though, and while Francesco survived, his bitter experiences made him a changed and uncertain man, seeking meaning and purpose beyond a life of materialism.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) is the story of this young man, from his weary return to Assisi to his eventual renunciation of his earthly riches for a beatific transformation. Right from the first haunting frames of the film, with a poignant folk tune sung as morning mists fade away to reveal the mountainous districts of Umbria, Brother Sun, Sister Moon establishes itself as a pious, almost magical film. The lone traveler viewed from afar, dwarfed by the twin mercantile towers of the town of Assisi, emerging from smokes and shadows - such images as this possess a visual strength that truly complements the film's overall spiritual tone.
The lone traveler is Francesco, returned from war. He is seized upon by fever and delirium, and during his long convalescence, his indistinct dreams and half-memories retrace the path of a former life of carefree and libidinous desires. During one such remembrance, Francesco chases a young girl through the woods before the pursuit ends unexpectedly at the bed of a shallow stream. The girl's name is Clare, we learn later, and her trek through the woods has been for the expressed purpose of providing bread to denizens of a nearby lazar house. The young Francesco is initially repulsed by the sight of such lepers congregating around the kind Clare and flees, but this episode will eventually play a role in his spiritual enlightenment and conversion.
In due time, Francesco recovers his health but not his former conceit. Strangely, he now mourns the plight of the poor. He pleads for the villagers of Assisi to divest themselves of their worldly riches, for materialistic desires cannot bring true happiness. One cannot serve two masters, money and God; to love the one is to despise the other. Celestial visions bless Francesco's waking thoughts. He even begins to shun his father's work, instead extolling an embrace of nature. He takes to the verdant meadows of Assisi to "sing like the birds, chase after butterflies, and look at the flowers."
How does one divine the breadth of a person's soul beneath his earthly features or actions incongruous with the establishment? Many in Assisi consider the boy Francesco completely mad. One day before the cathedral of the Bishop Guido, the people of Assisi even watch in stun amazement as Francesco renounces his social position, returning to his father his possessions, his clothing, and even his name. Francesco sets forth from town, aspiring towards a more humble existence of communion with the natural world, focusing his efforts upon restoring the consecrated ruins of the San Damiano church not far from the town of Assisi.
The few in town who recognize a deeper wisdom in Francesco's actions slowly, one by one, begin to flock to him as brothers. Among them is Clare, already angelic at heart, now devoted to understanding the wisdom behind the words of a young man she once considered juvenile and frivolous. How ironic that devoutness and rationality in the eyes of some is considered madness in the eyes of others.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon's climax is an unforgettable scene in the holy court of Pope Innocent III. Surrounded by a sea of bishops and representatives of the Apostolic See, overlooked by a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, the Pope in Rome is the sole individual who might legitimize Francesco's actions, which some have increasingly come to view as blasphemy. Such a meeting between Francesco and Pope Innocent III truly did occur in 1209. At first, the Pope had declined to grant an audience to the man in beggar's garb, but following a nocturnal vision, had acquiesced the next day to hear the humble brother's message of altruism and commiseration. The Pope eventually did grant Francesco permission to found a new religious order, reconciling him with those who had doubted the man of Assisi.
As Francesco, Graham Faulkner possesses an uncommonly soothing quality to his countenance. One immediately accepts him as the young Francesco rediscovering innocence and faith. As Clare, Judi Bowker is herself beautiful almost beyond mortal standards; she truly is angelic and inspirational in this film. In their scenes together, Faulkner and Bowker are completely believable as youthful versions of eventual saints (Saint Francis of Assisi founded the Order of Friars Minor and is the patron saint of animals, while Saint Clare founded the Order of Poor Ladies, or the Second Order of St. Francis, for women who chose to follow the Franciscan vow of poverty and celibacy).
Director Franco Zeffirelli may be most famous for his Shakespearean adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but his meticulous attention to imagery and composition in Brother Sun, Sister Moon at times approaches the craftsmanship of Stanley Kubrick. From pastoral scenes of fields of blossoming flowers and streams of flowing waters, to the spectacle of a majestic parade by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto of Brunswick or the pageantry of the stately court of Pope Innocent III, virtually every scene in this film is immaculately photographed or framed. The film inclines more towards natural beauty and spirituality than historical realism or a strictly biographical story. At times, such evocative imagery and the film's timeless music advance the story even more than does the actual dialogue or understated narration. Brother Sun, Sister Moon is truly an unforgettably beautiful film, embracing simple aesthetics and an idealistic sentimentality. One almost longs to recapture a child's naiveté or sense of innocence to truly appreciate how wondrous this film is.
Sadly, in today's contemporary culture of hip-hop cynicism and instant gratification, a sincere film such as Brother Sun, Sister Moon could never be made. It is a product of its time, and its message of grace and love would surely be ridiculed now, which is perhaps a regrettable comment on the general dissolution of social mores and standards over the past several decades. Many other films have been made about St. Francis, most notably Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) or Michael Curtiz's Francis of Assisi (1961). Artistically however, Brother Sun, Sister Moon remains unsurpassed in its warmth and tenderness.
Video *** ˝
Brother Sun, Sister Moon is shown in an anamorphic widescreen format. Picture quality is pleasant with natural-appearing hues. There is only a trace of grain and occasional dust speckling.
Audio *** ˝
Audio is monaural in English or French. Evensongs and chants abound. The film's other haunting folk songs were written and performed by Donovan and provide incidental color and texture to the story. Brother Sun, Sister Moon should not be considered a true musical, but its overall tone makes it a fine counterpoint to another 1970's musical with flower generation sensibilities, Godspell (1973), or one of the purest romantic films of all time, Elvira Madigan (1967).
Features (zero stars)
There are no bonus features. Paramount missed an opportunity here to contrast Brother Sun, Sister Moon with its alternative Italian version Fratello sole, sorella luna, which ran fourteen minutes longer, contained minor editing differences, and featured an orchestral score by Riz Ortolani in lieu of Donovan's folk tunes.
"This is the man who will speak to the poor and bring them back to us."
A profoundly heart-warming tale, Brother Sun, Sister Moon may be one of the most beautiful films to come out of the 1970's. It is unforgettable, uplifting, and quite potentially life-transforming. Top recommendation.