Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Two classics

In this current round of catching up with movies on DVD (courtesy of the Public Library's very reasonable prices) my wife and I watched Babette's Feast yesterday, and I watched Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St Francis this morning.   (We also watched the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, about which I'll write later, since it's quite a different kettle of fish to these other two movies.)

I've known about these two movies for a long time - the Rossellini since I was a teenager, I'd imagine - so it's good to catch up with them at last.  I feel a bit as though sometimes I'm trawling my way through the 1000 movies I should watch before I die, but that's not really the case.  Some movies just stick in the brain as being classics that it would be good to see at some point.

Federico Fellini had a hand in writing the script for the Rossellini movie, and I suspect there are scenes where his influence is quite strong, such as in the crazy bit where the simple brother, Fra Ginapro, decides to prepare fifteen days worth of food at once so that he can go preaching.  The slightly senile old grandfather who's joined the brothers helps him by throwing the wood for the fire into the pot where the food is cooking (as he's done in a lesser way earlier on).   Or the scene where Ginapro is allowed to go preaching, winds up in a camp of soldiers and their hangers-on who are holding siege outside some town, and meets the commander who spends most of his screen time encased in an absurd suit of armour that's still being built around him.  Interestingly enough, the man playing the commander is the only one in the film who was a professional actor, yet he comes across as though he was playing in some silent movie, with wide eyes, large gestures, the lot.  The rest of the cast are rank amateurs, drawn in part from the Monks of the Nocere Inferiore Monastery.  Brother Nazario Gerardi played St Francis, though he's not credited in the movie.  He brings a deep seriousness to the role, a great deal of warmth, some humour, and occasional exasperation at the incompetency of some of the other brothers. 

The movie is simply made in every respect - the only 'big' scene is at the siege camp, where there are a large number of extras, horses, wooden structures, and a fire destroying everything at the end.  Everything else is done in the open air, and the buildings that the brothers make early in the film are the simplest of constructions.  Much of their time is spent tramping through open countryside, with few roads or paths.  The opening scene has them spending a great deal of time in the pouring rain, and towards the end Francis and another brother are thrown into the wet mud - learning what happiness is in the process (!)

The script is based on the well-known stories of St Francis.  There are nearly 80 of these parable-like tales called The Little Flowers of St Francis but the movie uses less than ten.  However, in a very detailed review of this movie on epinions the writer points out that the reason Fra Ginapro takes such a prominent role in the film is because more than half the stories were based more on The Life of Father Ginapro rather than on the The Little Flowers of St Francis.

The film is episodic in the extreme, with little in the way of character arc or climax, or the usual techniques of storytelling.  The filmmakers rely on the spiritual strength of the stories being acted out by people who themselves have no airs and graces.  In fact, there are several scenes where the brothers are more like children than adults - one usually skips everywhere when the brothers are heading somewhere, and at the end they're told to spin round until dizzy in order to find out where God wants them to go.  It's a bit of a joke on Francis' part, I suspect, but none of them regard it as unusual.  Another scene is nothing more than Francis discovering a leper walking slowly past in the dark, his bell clinking as a warning.  The man's face is covered in sores, and Francis breaks into tears, and then follows the man, finally embracing him.  And then the man goes on his way - a little puzzled!

Babette's Feast is a different kettle of fish, yet presents its spirituality in as equally quiet a way, avoiding overt preaching (we never hear the Franciscans preach in the other movie either), and showing how a purposeful act of love can affect people deeply.   The film focuses on two sisters, the daughters of a strictly religious man who has formed his own little following in a tiny village in the Jutland region.  The daughters are both courted by young men at different times, but their father's gentle persuasion keeps them from accepting the men.   As the film opens we see them as old women.  Their father has died, and their servant Babette, (St├ęphane Audrana Frenchwoman who fled the civil unrest in France, has been with them fourteen years.  The little community of Christians has reduced in number, and is still squabbling, much to the sisters' dismay.  Babette, who was sent to the sisters by one of the men who'd come courting so long ago, wins 10,000 francs in the lottery and decides to blow the whole amount on an extraordinary French cuisine meal for the little community.  The ascetic community decides they can eat the food, but not approve of it, and that they won't speak any good about it.  But in spite of themselves they're won over by it, and begin to enjoy a freedom of the spirit, and a joy that they've never previously exhibited.  A general is also at the meal: he courted one of the sisters years ago.  Having had experience of life outside the confines of the village, he realises that the person doing the cooking is a chef of the highest order.   In fact, he gradually recognises the menu as being one he's experienced in Paris many years before, a meal that cost 10,000 francs for twelve customers.  His continual delight and surprise is wonderful, as is the held-back delight of the other people at the table.  They may hold their tongues but they can't contain their joy.  And an audience watching the movie won't be able to either. 

The film is beautifully photographed in soft, warm colours; even the mists and rains are filmed with an eye to their colours.  The interiors, houses sparse in furniture and fittings, are filmed in a fittingly cooler style - except the kitchen where Babette works, which is alive with colour.  She has two companions in there on the night of the feast: a boy from the village who does all the serving, and who manages to imbibe a little along the way, and finish off some of the leftovers, and the coachman who brought the former suitor (now a general) and his aged aunt.  This man not only benefits from being in the kitchen, but sees the feast being prepared.   His delight is a joy to see.  

The pure and joyful asceticism in the Francis movie, in its context, is an apt expression of love for others.  The humanity that overcomes misaligned asceticism in Babette is an equally apt expression of love for others.  There's the wonderful line spoken about Babette by one of the sisters when she realises how impoverished Babette's life has been with them for fourteen years: In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!  This is in response to Babette's heartfelt cry: Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best. 

This movie is superb, and original. 

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