Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

13— Francesco, Giullare di Dio (1950)

Francesco, Giullare di Dio

At the very height of the scandal, while Bergman and Rossellini were being accused of the most heinous crimes against morality and human decency, Rossellini was busy making the most overtly religious film of his life. Later films like Augustine of Hippo, Acts of the Apostles , and The Messiah are, as we shall see, ultimately more concerned with history than theology or the spiritual life. Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God's Jester) to give it its full title, is delicately poised between the two. Thus, it clearly fits into the religious search and questioning of "crisis-era" films like The Miracle, Stromboli , and Europa '51 , its modern-day "sequel," which immediately followed. At the same time, however, Francesco signals the beginning of Rossellini's interest in the depiction of history per se. (It is also possible, of course, to see Open City, Paisan , and Germany, Year Zero as "historical films" that depict the recent past.)

This new interest in history is obvious throughout the film, but especially in the beginning of the American version (which, unlike Stromboli , Rossellini seems to have been responsible for).[1] There, we are historically situated through paintings and frescoes to give us the proper context to understand what we are about to see. In this, it is similar to the American version of the opening of Stromboli and, of course, the map and voice-over that move us through Paisan .[2] In other words, a strong didactic interest reigns in this film, as in most of Rossellini's films; this impulse is more overt in the later television work, but it is present from the first. Here the frescoes function to create an otherness in time, a past place that the film will consciously seek to represent, to signify, without attempting to recreate the historical period illusionistically. The difference may seem slight, but is in fact crucial and is the strategy that makes many of the


later historical films more epistemologically sophisticated than they seem at first glance. The frescoes, which Rossellini's camera pans while the voice-over explains the historical events they represent, complexly negotiate the distance between the filmic representation of the past and the past itself. They represent the past for us, yet they, in fact, also are the past because they were made then, but continue to exist in our day.

This strategy is characteristic of the whole film, and not just the opening of the American version, for Rossellini has not chosen to represent the historical Saint Francis, but quite clearly, as the opening credits tell us, to base the film on the prior representation of Francis and his followers in the Fioretti (Little Flowers) , first written right after Francis' death. This can, of course, be regarded as an attempt to get closer to the "truth" or "essence" of Saint Francis; but it also is a subtle admission that we cannot really get back to the past, as Ding an sich , but only represent it in ways that will always be more or less "distorted" by previous interpretations of it. As a version of the Fioretti , a genuine piece of writing from the past that continues to exist into the present, the film is both more authentic and yet further removed from real historical events themselves. In the Italian version, this process of mediation is even more deliberately foregrounded, as intertitles taken directly from chapter headings of the Fioretti are flashed on the screen before each new vignette. As we shall see, this general strategy of temporal doubling continues through the later historical films, when Rossellini insists on words and more words drawn from actual historical documents. In a sense, it is really the words, which exist in two times, that make these films "historical."

Rossellini has recounted in several interviews how Francesco came to be made. During the filming of Paisan , the director found himself with three German prisoners who were cooperating with the filming, if rather uneasily, and who finally took refuge in a monastery, where they knew they would be safe. When Rossellini and Fellini went to fetch them, they discovered the lovely shelter that became the setting for the monastery sequence of Paisan . From that day on, both men were intrigued with the idea of using these monks to make a film on Saint Francis himself, a film that would go back to the roots of the innocent naïveté and generosity (even if mistaken) that marks the monastery episode of the earlier film.[3] According to Brunello Rondi, who was associated with the film in its early stages, shooting began with a twenty-eight-page treatment (including only seventy-one lines of dialogue!) that had been worked up by Rossellini and Fellini alone. Fellini told his biographer Solmi that he had personally suggested the humorous scene with the tyrant Nicolaio; nevertheless, the film has always been regarded by those involved as Rossellini's creation. This fact must be insisted upon because of the common rhetorical tactic, used by an older generation of Communist critics to discredit Rossellini's films during this period, of suggesting that the film's "mysticism" and religiosity were the fault of the even more intensely disapproved-of Fellini, who had turned his back on anything even remotely resembling social realism. The screenplay, such as it was, and the rest of the dialogue were written later, during the actual shooting, as was Rossellini's wont, by the director, Rondi, and Father Alberto Maisano, who was in charge of the novices. Rondi has attested that no one else


was involved (in spite of the fact that the credits say that two priests, Felix Morlion and Antonio Lisandrini, also participated in the screenplay), and that at no time was there any church interference with Rossellini and Fellini's original idea. This testimony is important because some have accused Rossellini of making Catholic propaganda in this film; Rondi contends that, on the contrary, ecclesiastical authorities were displeased with the film because of its too-human portrayal of the saint.[4]

As the credits proudly state (hearkening back at least eight years to La nave bianca ), "The actors were taken from real-life," with the exception of Aldo Fabrizi (as in Open City ), in the role of the tyrant Nicolaio. Rossellini preferred working with nonprofessionals, but he never insisted that a real fisherman had to play a fisherman, a real farmer a farmer. Here, however, the coincidence is exact, and the friars are all played by real Franciscans.

When the film appeared, critical reaction was mixed, and it failed miserably at the box office. Interestingly enough, many neorealist critics who had sadly shaken their heads during the period of Rossellini's "crisis" warmly welcomed the film as a return to his "true" theme and mode, coralità , and in fact, an overcoming of the director's proclivity toward mysticism. Marxist critics, on the other hand, with Pio Baldelli leading the charge, attacked it as being little more than propaganda for the Church and, since 1950 was a papal holy year, Rossellini's attempt to get back in the Vatican's good graces.

The extensive polemic surrounding this film has revolved chiefly around the question of its historical veracity to the times, the Franciscans, and the saint himself. The debate is marked, on both sides, by appallingly simplistic notions concerning what it would mean to be historically true to a past epoch, and how one would go about finding a neutral ground from which one could portray the past "in its own terms," or even better, "objectively." Thus, the argument centers around claims of Rossellini's success or failure in this area, rather than the very possibility of presenting history objectively. It seems clearer today that the film offers itself, through the intermediary of the Fioretti , rather as a reading of history, of history as a text that cannot be grasped in a direct and unmediated form. At this point, at least, Rossellini seems to realize that all interpretations must be subjectively based, like all depictions of "reality," whether they are of an earlier era, or, as we shall see in India , of an alien culture.

But Rossellini would have refused to make the next step, toward either the utter unknowability of history or a radical relativism. In the later historical films, in fact, where more is at stake, he even wants to elide the subjective element altogether in favor of an "unbiased" presentation of facts. Rossellini also subscribes to an idea of history composed in grand outlines of major turning points, shifts in consciousness—a view of history that is itself, of course, only another interpretation. Thus, in Francesco he is not trying to portray merely a specific saint and his way of being in the world—though he is doing that as well—but also, as in his later historical films, what he takes to be a turning point in world history. Similarly, the title's emphasis on the person of Saint Francis is itself belied, for from the very beginning of the film—when for the longest time Rossellini refuses to single out Francis—great pains are taken to decenter the saint, to see him as a member of a group and as part of an era. (Some critics


have complained that Brother Ginepro, the foolish monk around whom many of the unconnected episodes revolve, is accorded too much importance in the film, at the expense of Francis, but it is clear that this is a crucial and conscious tactic.) Rossellini's later historical films will repeat this contradictory double stress on the individual and his time: films like Augustine of Hippo, Pascal, Socrates , and so on all point, even in their titles, to a "great man" theory of history, but since the individual figures serve in the films chiefly as organizing devices for the presentation of the characteristics of an age, the theory is at the same time undone.

Of earlier critics, Mida seems closest to a proper sense of Rossellini's historical relativism. For him, the interpretation of Francis is rather "loose" and poetic, but he prefers this to a cold recital of facts: Rossellini "is faithful to history, but it is a faithfulness that must be understood through the fantasy of an artist, who takes everything from the legend which inspires and moves him."[5] Later critics like Jose Guarner have rightly insisted that the historical recreation has been whittled down to a recreation of ideas; and Giorgio Tinazzi has pointed out, the principal idea here is "Franciscanism as a way of existence."[6] In other words, Rossellini's interest in the depiction of history primarily for its informational value is not nearly as developed as it will be later in the films made for television. Here, he remains a captive of the religious impulse of films like The Miracle and Stromboli[7] (remember that Saint Francis was also mentioned in Rossellini's first letter to Bergman), and Francesco serves retrospectively as a grounding for the relentless spiritual striving of these earlier films.[8]

But if religious values are privileged over the "facts," Rossellini nevertheless had a didactic purpose in mind in making this film. As in the other films of this period, he is concerned with the despair and cynicism facing postwar Europe, and unashamedly offers Saint Francis and his philosophy as answers, as a way back to an essential wholeness. Just as the turn to God at the end of Stromboli may embarrass us nowadays with its overt religiosity, so too the "message" of Francesco is militantly old-fashioned, as Rossellini told students at the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia in the early sixties:

It was important for me then to affirm everything that stood against slyness and cunning. In other words, I believed then and still believe that simplicity is a very powerful weapon. . . . The innocent one will always defeat the evil one; I am absolutely convinced of this, and in our own era we have a vivid example in Ghandhism. . . . Then, if we want to go back to the historical moment, we must remember that these were cruel and violent centuries, and yet in those centuries of violence appeared Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Siena.[9]

Marcel Oms may claim that one does not vanquish tyrants by nonviolence, as Brother Ginepro does in the Fioretti and the film, but Rossellini clearly feels otherwise. Revolutionary after his own fashion, the director believes, with Shelley, that the individual must first be changed before society can be changed. Naturally, this can seem to be the kind of phony "revolution" always fostered by the bourgeoisie, who speak of spiritual values rather than material ones be-


cause their material lives are relatively comfortable. In any case, it obviously took courage for Rossellini to offer such transparently "retrograde" values to a modern audience, and in many ways the radicalism of this film lies in its fearless exposure of the director's vulnerable idealism. As we shall see, this courage is even more evident in his next film, Europa '51 , which carries the same message as Francesco but removes it from the comfortable safety of the distant past to the startling present of its title.

In formal terms, Francesco is a film whose thoroughgoing unconventionality makes the polemics surrounding its historical veracity almost irrelevant. For one thing, there is really no plot in the film, and scarcely more characterization. It revels in the partial, the hint, the barely glimpsed, shunning the fully "narrativized" or the straightforwardly presented. Aside from Brother Ginepro's violent encounter with the tyrant Nicolaio and his men, we get little more than humorous misunderstandings about needing a pig's foot to make soup (Ginepro "convinces" a still-living pig to donate its foot), Saint Francis telling the birds to be quiet so that he can pray, and the loving, simple preparations for the visit of Saint Clair. Again, as we have seen in other Rossellini films, the sketch, the vignette, and the illuminating anecdote are favored over a doggedly linear exposition. The individual scenes from the Fioretti chosen for "dramatization" do not seem inevitable, nor do they really cohere (as some have complained), but, then again, they were never meant to. Rather, an atmosphere is created and a minimalist structural system of opposites elaborated in a denuded and thoroughly unrealistic setting. As part of this strategy, the process of symbolization is foregrounded throughout in the constant references to the purgative emblems of fire and rain. The monks' full-throated Gregorian chant, which links many of the vignettes, also contributes to the purposeful lack of realism, for it was obviously recorded by a large choir singing in a church. Similarly, gestures and other movements of bodies and heads are greatly slowed down, further stylizing the film in the direction of greater simplicity. What is at stake, once again, is an idea rather than an illusionistic reconstruction.

History, or better, historiography, on the other hand, is linear, fully elaborated, logical, supremely rational. There are beginnings and endings and—at least to judge by the work of most historians—clear-cut narratives, with the rising action, falling action, and climax all properly arranged, according to the neat codes of realism, no matter what violence may be done to the actual fabric of lived experience. In other words, in the depiction of the "divine madness" that afflicted Saint Francis and his followers, it was important to Rossellini in 1950 to avoid the rigors of a supposedly objective historiography because its logical linearity would itself have been inimical to the Franciscans' crazy world of faith. As Henri Agel has reminded us, these early Franciscans, thought eccentric, were simply disaffected with the power of rationality that we hold so dear. In this regard he compares Rossellini's film to Dreyer's Ordet: in both, "Faith blows up all the logical mechanisms."[10] Elsewhere, Agel says of Francesco that it demonstrates "a perfect disaffection of the soul vis-à-vis the mental processes of a civilized adult."[11] Thus, an "accurate" historical recreation will be one more logical mechanism that Rossellini must blow up if the film's form is to reflect its subject matter.


One very obvious casualty will thus be the rigorous logic of narrative itself. Strictly speaking, narrative is continually defeated in this film (at least in its largest sense, for "narrative" per se can never be finally defeated, since even a single shot can be "narrativized" at some minimal level), in favor of the incomplete, the aleatory, and the suggestive poetic anecdote that is, narratively, a dead end. Here the tableau, the anecdote, and the image exist more easily in a stylized world of symbolic values than would a strongly plotted film full of "realistic" action. Henri Agel describes this technique as Rossellini's "aesthetic of insignificance," an aesthetic we have seen as early as La nave bianca and L'uomo dalla croce —where it manifested itself as a documentation of reality for its own sake—as well as in the long takes of later films. In many ways this aesthetic of insignificance, of "banality," as Agel calls it elsewhere, is directly related to the famous long-take sequence invented by Cesare Zavattini for De Sica's Umberto D ., made two years later, in which we spend several minutes watching a maid clean up the kitchen in the early morning, while nothing "happens." Both point toward the indirect, meandering antinarrativity of Antonioni's films of the late fifties and early sixties. As Brunello Rondi has nicely put it: "The sequences of Francesco do not have an irresistible rhythmic movement which leads them toward certain conclusions sensed from the beginning. They seem rather to wander weightlessly, to appear on the surface in the purest gestures, making up an order which is abstract, but intensely revealing; they are, precisely, 'atonal.'"[12]

One of the most interesting things about the film is that it seems to occupy the same kind of ambivalent, complicated medieval space, simultaneously realistic and stylized, that is the hallmark of the Divine Comedy (which Ingmar Bergman was also to capture a few years after Francesco in The Seventh Seal ). Rossellini has, of course, paid lip service to the ordinary demands of historical verisimilitude—trying to get the costumes right, for example—but, even more important, the film is imbued with the rough graininess of neorealism that allows us to feel the monks' scratchy tunics and the drenching rain. Yet, at the same time, Francesco flaunts its visual stylization. This is especially true in Rossellini's use of the art of the period as a kind of model or template to teach us how to watch the film; he seems very consciously to have shot the film with the stylized, severe simplicity of medieval art. For example, in the longer European version of the initial sequence, Francis lies down in the mud so that the friars can walk on him: the arrangement of bodies and the overall composition of the frame are clearly taken from Giotto's depiction of Saint Francis' death in a famous fresco. Throughout, we see the monks in almost total isolation from any "real" world, functioning, like medieval art, symbolically, as an emblematic community of the possible. Giorgio Tinazzi has pointed out that even the shots are continually flattened to eliminate perspective, thus putting man and nature on the same level.[13] I would merely add that another, perhaps more important, effect of this flattening is to suggest the two-dimensionality of the highly symbolic space of medieval art before the conquest of Renaissance "realistic" perspective, which entails an entirely different worldview. As a matter of fact, Rossellini's entire technical, emotional, and thematic trajectory can be summed up, if reductively, in this movement from the medieval to the Renaissance, not



The flattened perspective of the medieval world: the monks of  Francesco,
giullare di Dio
 (1950) walk in the rain.

only in terms of their visual aspects, specifically their art, but in terms of their distinct ways of looking at the world. At this period of his life, he is concerned with the mystical, the personal, the religious, and the emotional—in short, the medieval. Later, beginning tentatively with India , Rossellini will move toward the factual, the rational, and the privileging of scientific knowledge, a movement that reaches its zenith, as we shall see, in the Renaissance figure Leon Battista Alberti of The Age of the Medici .

Linear, temporal narrativity and worldly logic, then, are being refused by means of an aesthetic of symbolic space, discontinuity, and fragmentation. Thus, when Pio Baldelli complains that "within each scene, the studied elaboration of individual details does not create a unified architecture, but rather multiple articulations of isolated parts,"[14] we may very well object that this is precisely what Rossellini was after. But, just as we saw in Paisan , what is discontinuous at one level in a Rossellini film usually becomes essentialized and thus made continuous on a higher plane of abstraction. In the earlier film, Rossellini's aesthetic of difference and fragmentation, in other words, was ultimately aimed at describing a unity or essence of "human nature." Here, in addition to the film's antinarrativity and overt stylization, Rossellini decenters Saint Francis as the main focus, as we saw, but only in order to recenter the film in "the spirit of Franciscanism" itself. The decision not to individualize the friars is also clearly part of this essentializing strategy. Hence, unlike in conventional


cinema, Rossellini does dally with the "inessential," but always does so to reach a grander essence at the end.

The essence of Franciscanism that Rossellini is striving for is elaborated structurally in visual and spatial terms. The pictorial flattening discussed above creates a kind of minimalist paysage moralisé out of the monks' simple community, a stylized, antirealistic locus of genuine Christian kindness and joy that operates principally in symbolic terms. Against this quiet, spatially uncomplicated place, Rossellini sets the tyrant Nicolaio's camp, one of the few times in the film that we venture beyond the enclosed, protected world of the religious community. Here in the camp is the discontinuous world: noisy, rude, violent, marked by continual frenzied movement to and fro, it stands in vivid contrast to the simplicity that has occupied the screen up to this point, and the spectator is visually and aurally overwhelmed. The frame is crammed with trees, tents, and rough, shouting warriors, all of this clashing violently with the open, loose framing of the bare territory of the brothers. When Ginepro is brought before Nicolaio, the structural contrast is continued in Ginepro's simple robe and the tyrant's enormous, comic suit of armor that can be put on or taken off only by an entire retinue of followers operating an elaborate pulley system. The values of simplicity and the "essential" are clearly favored over the complex and the superfluous.

Most important here is the choice of Aldo Fabrizi, the only professional actor


The discontinuous world versus pure spirit: the tyrant Nicolaio
(Aldo Fabrizi) bullies Brother Ginepro in  Francesco .


in the film, to play the part of Nicolaio. Most critics have seen his histrionic acting as the film's chief fault, but it may be one of its virtues. His acting—overacting, really—is precisely what is necessary to augment the structural opposition between the brothers' simplicity and Nicolaio's worldliness: in other words, the familiar opposition of nature and culture. His performance is purposely foregrounded, made self-reflexive, as is Magnani's in Una voce umana , and thus serves, itself, as part of the film's meaning. By this means, the structural opposition is carried to a kind of metalevel as well, beyond the level of the story to its mode of telling.

But the world's discontinuities are finally not to be as easily mastered as the tyrant Nicolaio, and the essence cannot forever be maintained. For one thing, an essence, paradoxically, as we saw in the chapter on Open City , can be represented only by means of the inessential, imperfect signifiers that present themselves to the senses. The final scene of the film, when the brothers must disperse to bring their (essential) message to all parts of the world, demonstrates the inevitable gap that all representation entails, even, or especially, the representation of that which is eternal. Francis has them spin around and around until they get dizzy and fall to the ground (a wonderfully apt metaphor for their way of being in the world and in this film); whichever way they fall is the direction in which they are to proceed to begin their preaching. Rossellini wisely decided to hold the camera immobile at this point, for the camera itself becomes the locus of their unity and the symbol of the wholeness of an unmeditated vision, and we are treated to an understated, but intensely emotional, shot of the brothers walking off in different directions. Most of the action in this shot occurs in the foreground, and the landscape is visually present throughout, beckoning the friars and thus challenging the unity that is, in fact, about to be broken up. The director could have ended the film with a moment of narrative, spatial, and emotional unity, of course; it is as though he and the logic of the film itself were driven to reveal the gap in representation. The film seems deliberately to skirt the edge of the abyss because it knows that everything can be made right again in some final moment of transcendence. But can it? One after another, the friars turn around for just one more look, as they get further and further away. Those at the far left and right disappear, then Francis and another friar walk toward and past the camera, out of the shot. Finally, only three small figures remain in sight, far away in the background. Dispersal and discontinuity seem to reign. At this point, however, Rossellini reveals his last, most powerful, stroke, a double gesture that attempts to master both the visual and aural track and unify them in a "transcendent" moment.

For, as the monks separate visually, their singing gradually grows louder, holding them together in spite of everything. The singing, of course, is a repetition of the Word and the continuity of the Franciscan message, and the fact that what they are singing is the Te Deum, points nicely toward the source of any possible transcendence. Thus, the aural track is enlisted against the dispersion of the visuals. Even the discontinuity implied in the visuals is mastered by a new unity, however, as Rossellini tilts up at the last moment to a shot of the moving clouds in the sky, a shot that he will repeat at the end of The


Messiah a quarter of a century later, toward a vision of final, divine transcendence that unifies and reconciles all earthly difference.

But the difference inherent in the sign itself, the interval that always exists between the signifier and the signified, will forever have the last word. For one thing, we can project some future point (soon) when the singing must stop and the aural unity will disintegrate. More important, though, the very image that Rossellini offers us of a fixed, unified point of "grounding"—heaven above—is in fact not a single place at all (though this is the signified we are meant to understand here). Instead, it can only be seen (otherwise the screen would be utterly blank and thus signify, literally, nothing) because of the many discrete, discontinuous clouds that paradoxically constitute it and body it forth, without which it would, literally, not exist.[15]

Rossellini's desire for an essence, in other words, will always be defeated in advance by his need to represent that essence. This is not to say that there is no continuity, no unity, no essence; merely that these "entities" can only be achieved or, better, constructed by means of their opposites.


13— Francesco, Giullare di Dio (1950)

Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.