Six Damn Fine Degrees #74: San Francesco was a hippie!

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

The spiritual motorcycle journey to San Francisco described in last week‘s post reminded me of another spiritual journey by the man who had lent his name to the City by the Bay: Saint Francis of Assisi. And I was especially struck again by the one film that made an indelible connection between the medieval saint‘s life and the hippie lifestyle that originated in San Francisco: Brother Sun and Sister Moon (1972).

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who had not made a film by this point since his stunning success of the gorgeous Romeo and Juliet in 1968, the film stars Graham Faulkner as Francesco. Traumatised by war, he first spends days suffering nightmares in his native Assisi. After several inspirations of faith and nature, Francesco famously gives all possessions including his name to his rich parents and walks away from Assisi naked to find his spiritual destiny, rebuilding a church, founding a community of believers and being received and surprisingly honoured by Pope Innocent III (Alec Guinness’ early practice for the Obi Wan Kenobi role a few years later).

Photographed in Zeffirelli’s signature style (Director of Photography Ennio Guarnieri also lensed several Fellini movies), every image looks taken out of a glossy magazine, with an array of memorable faces in combination with Umbria’s natural beauty. Beside Faulkner and Guinness, the film stars Judi Bowker (Clash of the Titans), Leigh Lawson (Tess), Valentina Cortese (Day for Night) and Kenneth Cranham (Layer Cake).

Despite its medieval background, this makes it look much less like a faithful biopic or historical drama than a thinly veiled allegory on the supposed first hippie. Refusing worldly possessions, peacefully demonstrating against the authorities, starting a new life in a countryside commune and building a new spiritual basis had more than a handful of echos within the world the film was produced and released. In Zeffirelli’s view, Saint Francis was shown as the spiritual father of the flower power movement, so to speak, with hippie singer/songwriter Donovan providing the tunes underneath the magical transformation.

Reviews were not particularly kind at the time of the film’s release (Roger Ebert called it “an excess of sweetness and light”), but as often happens, the film has garnered appreciation and a cult status over the years, and many see it as a perfect companion piece to Romeo and Juliet (possibly even a trilogy with Taming of the Shrew) before the director’s journeys into more historical fiction (TV’s Jesus of Nazareth, Tea with Mussolini), Shakespeare (Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, Otello at the opera) and odd ventures into Hollywood mediocrity (The Champ, Endless Love). Later in his life, Zeffirelli became famous for his countless opera productions before infamously ending his illustrious career for a senate seat in Berlusconi’s right-wing populist party and never publicly coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Long gone by then were the pure if at times simplistic convictions he portrayed about San Francesco’s early modern hippie life that makes the innocent beauty of Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna.

* On a strange side note, the highly popular Donovan songs were never released at the time and the Italian soundtrack album only featured composer Riz Ortolani’s instrumental score and the Italian title song. It was in 2004, finally, that Donovan re-recorded all his original songs for an iTunes release, much to the delight of the film’s fan following.

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