For years now I have been meaning to watch Zeffirelli’s 1972 biopic on Francis of Assisi (and St. Clair), “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” A few days ago I was finally able to do so. I can honestly say that I found the film to be one of the most beautiful, moving, Christ-honoring films I have ever seen, and I have not stopped thinking of it sense. To be sure, I can see why some liked and some disliked Donovan’s music in the English version of the film (I actually liked it). Here is an example of what I’m talking about.
Furthermore, the movie is clearly a product of the early 1970’s. Even so, I found rather charming some of the quirks that others find amusing or off-putting. And, yes, the film does indeed reflect the times by presenting St. Francis as a bit more Bohemian than the actual historical record would warrant, but I daresay that even these liberties do not really violate the spirit of what Francis was doing.
I suppose there may be personal reasons why the movie affected me so much. On a nostalgic level, I have long loved Zeffirelli’s earlier film, “Romeo and Juliet,” ever since we had to watch it in high school. And, no, it’s not just because I, along with every single boy in school, had a crush on the 1968 Olivia Hussey. On the contrary, the score for that film, along with the acting and overall presentation was the first time it ever occurred to me that a film could indeed be art. I also believe that was one of the first movie soundtracks I ever bought.
On a more personal level, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” has affected me so, I think, because (a) of a long-standing admiration I have for St. Francis and (b) because of how the film (and Francis’ life) has hit me at this point in my pastoral life. I certainly am not a part of the cult of Francis, but I do gladly proclaim my sincere and deep fascination with the little man of Assisi who decided to take Jesus at His word. Do I admire Francis uncritically? Absolutely not. He was a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church in ways I find frustrating. Even so, he offered a prophetic corrective to many of the foibles of the church (Catholic and ((of course, unknowingly)) Protestant alike) that cannot help but win the admiration of all those who love gospel truth, whether its purveyor abide in our own tribe or not.
Parts of the movie just absolutely nail this or that aspect of Francis’ odd and wonderful life. For instance, it captures beautifully Francis’ startling wonder at the miracle of creation, as evidenced here, in Francis’ fascination with a bird he spots from his hospital bed.
Or the way that Francis’ simple life and devotion to Jesus appealed to so many of his friends.
Or the strain that Francis’ life put on his parents.
There are many such examples in the movie that I found almost overwhelming. The conclusion of the movie, when Francis stands before the Pope (played by then-recent-convert Alec Guinness), is one of the more powerful instances of filmmaking you are likely ever to see, and one that every pastor should seriously contemplate.
I suppose I live in a kind of perpetual fear about what the ministry might do to a pastor’s soul if he loses the simple beauty of the gospel and of his calling. Francis stands as a corrective to all such drifting tendencies. I suppose that’s why I’m so drawn to his example. And I suppose that’s why I’m so drawn to this film.
Watch “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”