Francis My Hero

January 29 2015 | by

IF THE MEDIEVAL Francis of Assisi has any connection to a modern film director, that person would be Liliana Cavani, the only director ever to make not one, but three films on the founder  of the Franciscan Order.

Liliana Cavani was born in the northern Italian town of Carpi on 12 January, 1933. Through her mother, Liliana developed a passion for the cinema, while her father, an architect from Mantua, belonged to a conservative bourgeois family of landowners. Interested in urban development, he often took his daughter to museums, and had worked in urban planning in Baghdad in 1956, when Iraq was still under British control.

Liliana graduated in literature and philology from the University of Bologna in 1960, writing a dissertation on the 15-century poet and nobleman Marsilio Pio. Liliana had intended to become an archaeologist, a profession she soon abandoned in order to pursue her passion for the moving pictures. She attended Rome’s renowned Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, (Experimental Cinematography Center) inaugurated by Benito Mussolini prior to World War II. She studied documentary filmmaking and obtained her diploma with the short films Incontro notturno (1961), about the friendship between two men, a European and a Senegalese, and L’evento (1962) about a group of tourists who killed for fun, eventually winning her first prize as director for the documentary La battaglia. From then on her career as a film and screenwriter took off with a series of films and documentaries like Galileo, which analyses the conflict between faith and science, and Milarepa, a film on the 11th century Tibetan poet and mystic.

Liliana has also directed famous and controversial films like The Night Porter (1974), starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, and more recently the 2002 film Ripley’s Game, starring John Malkovich, a thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name.


Enduring connection


Liliana, however, made her first full-length feature film in 1966 with Francis of Assisi. Made for television and aired in two parts, it was deeply influenced by the style of Roberto Rossellini and the atmosphere typical of Pier Paolo Pasolini. The film was a great success, but also triggered some negative reactions because the life of the saint was retold from the 60s political radical point of view. With Lou Castel in the lead character, this film also established Liliana’s first connection with the Saint of Assisi.

A connection that endures, for Liliana, fascinated as she is by Francis, would, after 23 years, in 1989, make a second film on him, called Francesco, starring Mickey Rourke as Francis, and Helena Bonham Carter as Clare. The Greek composer Vangelis provided the musical score. The film won three awards, and was nominated for a fourth.

After a span of another two decades Liliana has decided to make a third film on St. Francis of Assisi. The film stars Polish actor Mateusz Kościukiewicz for the role of Francis and Sara Serraiocco as Clare, and was aired on Italian television in December 2014.

A few days ago I was able to interview the 81 year-old director, whose enthusiasm for God’s Pauper was clearly discernible during our conversation.


Giant of humility


Ms Cavani, how did your passion for the film industry start?

My mother loved going to the small cinema in Carpi, my home town, and she would take me along with her on Sunday afternoons. My interest in the cinema really started there. Later, I founded a film club with friends while at high school in Carpi, and we would go all the way to Bologna to choose the films we would show.


Why a third film on St. Francis of Assisi?

There are two figures in history for whom I have great love: Mozart and Francis. On the surface, these two giants seem to be on the opposite end of the spectrum, yet there is a strange connection between them, and they have always moved me deeply. One is a saint, while the other is an artist, but they are both marvellous creatures. Just think how much poorer humanity would be without them.


What is it about the figure of Francis that has driven you to make three films on him?

The fact that Francis never pretended to teach anything to anyone. Out of his immense love for Jesus, he simply tried to live Gospel values as best he could by loving all of God’s creatures. It is an extraordinary thing when a human being no longer desires to excel above his brothers and sisters; when a human being actually prefers to be ‘the last’.

I know many people who use the gift of intelligence to gain status for themselves, and sometimes, when they actually do achieve high standing in society, they become very vain and arrogant. They put their heart and soul into climbing the social ladder without realising that they are losing something of the utmost importance, which, however, seems without any value to them, but which is, instead, the deeper meaning of their lives.

Francis, on the other hand, wishes to remains faithful to his relationship of love to Jesus, and goes on a deep search for life’s real meaning. For him the Gospel is the ‘discovery within the discovery,’ because it is the annunciation of the meaning of life for all creatures. This faith-certainty becomes the drive behind all his deeds. All creatures form a fraternal relationship with Jesus Christ.


New knowledge


Why is it that every 20 years or so, your interest as a director is turned towards the Poor Man of Assisi?

To study Francis means to enrich one’s life. His life stimulates one’s creative imagination, and it is a great aid in the search for the meaning of life. I then try to share this enrichment with others through my films because this is my job, the only job I am able to do.


What sources did you draw from in making this latest film?

I made my first film back in 1966 after stumbling across the figure of Francis almost by chance. Somebody had given me the book Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Paul Sabatier, published in 1894. It was such a wonderful introduction into the life St. Francis that I felt compelled to know more about him, so I read A Unique Saint, a 1952 book by Joseph Lortz, a more modern account of his life. However, when I made that first film even the historical documents on Francis, the Franciscan Sources, had still to be published in their entirety, and in 1966 interest in St. Francis was not as great as it is now.

I have, by now, read dozens of books on St. Francis. One of the latest writers on the saint is Chiara Frugoni, who has given a very interesting description of the relationship between Francis and Clare. Other interesting studies have recently been conducted by Jacques Le Goff and other scholars of the Middle Ages.

On the subject of the Crusades, which are described in my latest film, I studied, along with my colleagues, the highly informative book The Saint and the Sultan by Paul Moses, the veteran American journalist.

With all this new knowledge bubbling inside of me, I just knew I had to make a third film on my hero.


Man of the future


What particular characteristics do you admire in Francis?

His modernity. Francis’ vision of life is so modern that we can never really catch up with him; he is always one step ahead of us. The medieval saint is, in fact, a man of the future.


In your first film on Francis, the saint was played by Lou Castel, in your second film by Mikey Rourke, and in this your latest film by Mateusz Kościukiewicz. What led you to choose Kościukiewicz for the role of Francis?

It was a long and difficult choice. As the film is made in English I went to London to audition about 30 people for the role, but none of them really satisfied me. Mateusz Kościukiewicz was actually discovered by my casting director, who found him in one of the 10 winners of the Shooting Stars Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

We called Kościukiewicz to Rome for a screen test, and when I saw him I realised I had finally found the right person. At this pointy the Polish actor became the 13th century medieval saint!


Was the choice to produce another film on Francis inspired by the fact that the Pope is named after him?

No, because when the current pope was elected I had already been working on this film for a year. However, with the election of Pope Francis, I received confirmation that my desire to go back to Francis was a shared value.


Next projects


Some people are saying that your next film will be on Pope Francis. Is that true?

Well, I am working on a story based on the book, Bergoglio’s List by Nello Scavo. It is the story of Fr. Jorge Bergoglio’s efforts, when he was just 39 years old and serving as provincial superior of the Jesuits of Argentina, to save hundreds of people from persecution by the country’s military dictatorship.

I see the Holy Father as the man which the Catholic Church, Christians in general, and the world, need in this particular moment. His election has been really providential.


Saint Pope John Paul II invited you to the Vatican when he wanted to see your second film on St. Francis. What do you remember of that event?

It was during the Feast of the Epiphany in 1990, and I remember it was a very rainy day. I was admitted into a hall where I saw the Pope with a few of his closest aids. I was seated next to him, and every now and then it was clear that he was feeling deeply moved by the film. He would touch my arm from time to time during the screening. At the end we parted with a big hug.


Theology in action


Are the poor present in your film?

They are indeed present in the film because Francis ‘cast his lot’ as it were, with them. They became part and parcel of his family. St. Clare did the same, and she also plays an important role in this film.


Has making this film changed you in any way?

When we study Francis we are naturally induced to become gentler in our dealings with others and in our relationship and attitudes to the world. Francis says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” however, Francis never actually preached theology, rather, his whole life, his deeds, are pure theology in action.


Do you see any future for Francis’ message of peace in our violent world?

Humanity lacks a ‘culture of peace,’ yet this culture should be our ‘most important weapon.’ This culture should have become prominent after all the horrors of the 20th century, and the UN should act more effectively in this sense.


Change yourself first


How important is freedom for you?

Francis’s conception of freedom swayed me from the outset. Much has been written on the subject of freedom, but a lot of this literature is useless. Freedom has become a slogan for groups fighting for independence from practically everyone and everything, but this sort of freedom can easily slide into anarchy.

Freedom, however, is the real and only basis on which a credible theology can stand. This is because freedom has to do with a person’s destiny. In fact freedom consists in being able to decide to become oneself. ‘Conversion’ for Francis, was a free process of changing oneself. Francis decided to transform first of all himself. This is the core of his theology. He understood that he could help others change their own lives for the better only by setting an example himself.

Francis never blamed the Church, or the clergy, like many heretics of his day. Now that was a grand intuition: change first yourself – this, alone, is real ‘conversion’, the only real turning point, the only change in one’s life, and you cannot pretend to force this change on others.

These were new ideas for his times, and this explains why he is such a respected figure today. Francis is a man of our times, or rather, he is even ‘ahead’ of our times.


Updated on October 06 2016