(Fratello sole, sorella luna)

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. 1972.

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"If you want to live life free, take your time go slowly. Do few things but do them well. Simple joys are holy." - Donovan

Czech writer Milan Kundera has defined kitsch as offering a sanitized view of the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions." Clement Greenberg defines it as "vicarious experience and faked sensations". "Kitsch", he says, is "the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times." One cinematic example might be Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the 1972 film by director Franco Zeffirelli that depicts the early years of St. Francis of Assisi, a Christian saint of ecology and the environment. The film has some strong moments, particularly in the last half-hour, but is undone by amateurish acting, exaggerated sentimentality, and the banal songs of British folk singer Donovan. 

Francesco is the son of a wealthy textile merchant. He has indulged in the good life in his youth but when he comes back seriously ill from fighting a local war his attitude towards life changes. He loves watching the birds, communing with nature, washing lepers, and helping the poor. He hears the message from the cross of a church that has been destroyed to "go and rebuild my church".  Turning from his father's greedy ways, he renounces all his possessions and follows his ideal of Christ to live in simplicity and poverty. After one of his followers is killed, however, he goes to Rome to find out what he is doing wrong and, after much hesitation, receives the blessing of Pope Innocent III who is played by Alec Guinness in the only scene in the film that has any real emotional depth. 

Graham Faulkner is unconvincing as Francesco, playing the would-be saint with all the gob stopping goodness and wide-eyed conviction of Martin Short performing a routine on Saturday Night Live. He is not helped much either by Judi Bowker as Clare, a young disciple who joins Francesco in running through the flowers or by Lee Montague in an hysterically overwrought performance as Francis' capitalist father. 

Zeffirelli depicts the young St. Francis as a stereotypical hippie rebelling against the sins of greed and materialism. Of course by the time of the film, the hippie movement had turned into a sordid scene of drugs and violence and the idealism of the flower children had largely been pre-empted by a voracious media that inevitably responds to new ideas with the position that if you can't beat 'em, embrace and emasculate them. 

I cannot argue with the need to return to a life of authenticity, a life of the spirit, but despite all its surface promotion of an open lifestyle, the film is a barely disguised attempt to bring all the unwashed hippies into the Christian fold. Nonetheless, Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a beautiful looking film that might have still worked if the director had simply followed the teachings of his protagonist and shown less ostentation and earnestness, more naturalism and simplicity, and more appreciation than exploitation.


Howard Schumann
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