The Flowers of St. Francis is not one of Roberto Rossellini’s better-known films. In fact, it was critically dismissed when it first premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1950, and was subsequently considered a box-office failure. But with each passing decade the film has attracted new audiences and has revealed itself to be a more complex work than originally thought, rich in subtext and certainly deserving of a second look. The film is set in the 12th century and follows Saint Francis of Assisi and his entourage of devout ascetics (played by real-life monks), as they strive to maintain personal humility while inspiring moral probity in the people around them. Unlike the bare-bones neo-realism that Rossellini made famous with his earlier films, most notably the seminal Rome, Open City, here he adopts a more episodic structure aided by the use of intertitles. The Flowers of St. Francis is philosophically complex and subtly humorous, and at times it verges on the surreal, a characteristic that is probably attributable Federico Fellini’s contribution to the script which was his last collaboration with Rossellini. But the direction remains pure Rossellini: unobtrusive and effectively understated. While once regarded as a straightforward religious film, this reading no longer seems to hold true (Rossellini was a self-proclaimed atheist after all). It is also telling that the film, which is ultimately about the challenges and rewards of compassion and redemption, was made just a few years after World War II, when Italy—much like St. Francis—was trying to come to terms with its past in order to make peace for the future.
The son of a wealthy Roman architect, Roberto Rossellini experimented with film in 1934. His 1938 short, Prelude a L'apres-midi d'une Faune attracted attention but was banned by Mussolini's censors. Nonetheless, when Mussolini's film-executive son, Vittorio, offered Rossellini a job making movies, he accepted. His first fictional film, La Nava Bianca, was released in 1940. As war raged, Rossellini clandestinely shot footage of anti-Fascist fighters while serving as advisor on Il Duce-sanctioned films. In 1943, Rossellini worked on Desiderio, considered by many the first neorealist film. His 1945 feature, Open City, starring Anna Magnani and co-written by Federico Fellini, was an international hit. Rossellini followed with two other acclaimed features, Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1947). Beginning with Stromboli in 1949, he directed Ingrid Bergman in a series of films, including Europa '51 (1951) and Voyage in Italy (1953), which today are considered modernist masterpieces though ignored by critics at the time. From the early 1960's until his death, Rossellini worked almost exclusively in television, directing the biographies of Socrates, Saint Augustine, and King Louis XIV.