Posted by Webster
A column today at The Catholic Thing about Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” calls it “the best TV miniseries ever.” You can debate that—easily—but here’s something I’ll take to the bank: “Jesus of Nazareth” is not even Zeffirelli’s best religious work. That would be “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” his 1972 film about Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi.
I have seen “BSSM” about two dozen times, although I have to admit there were mitigating circumstances.
In 1976, I was one of a group that bought a movie theater in Beverly, Massachusetts. It’s still in operation today, although I am no longer actively involved. Our strategy was to show double features of “Films Worth Seeing More than Once”—back in the long-forgotten days before widespread cable use, videos, and DVDs. With another fellow, I was responsible for booking the film program and, being two young romantics, we thought it might be nice to begin by showing Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1968). Yes, that was the year I turned 17.
But what movie to pair with “R&J”? We cast around and finally landed on a title neither of us had ever heard of, and only because it was also by Zeffirelli and, from the publicity, seemed to be a compatible romance. Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker? Probably another pair of performers like Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey of “R&J” playing young people in love—and to music by hippie folk minstrel Donovan! Sure, book it, why not?
And so, because the “feature” always played last in our double billings, our theatrical adventure on Cabot Street began officially with a film about young people in love—with God, with Jesus Christ. Lo and behold, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” became one of our most popular offerings, long after we had stopped playing “Romeo & Juliet”!
It’s not stretching things to say that, as I watched this film over and again—sometimes from the back of the auditorium where I welcomed guests, sometimes from the front row where my daughters Martha and Marian sat for every film, sometimes from the projection booth where my license hung framed on the wall—a calling to the Catholic faith was repeated over and over.
I think what stunned me about the film was that it captured the blessedness of poverty, as lived by Francis and, to a lesser extent in the film, Clare. The clip below is one of my favorite scenes, showing Francis, after the Christ of San Damiano has told him to “rebuild my church,” together with one of his old carousing buddies, Bernardo, on the cusp of his own conversion. The characters who are shown helping—some dimwitted, some handicapped, some aged beyond any apparent usefulness—are worth the price of admission. And the eyes of Francis (Faulkner) as he turns to greet Bernardo? It would be contradictory and also completely sincere to say that, every time I watched the film, I coveted that gaze.