Contextualizing the strange religious epic Brother Sun, Sister Moon requires a close look at the timing of its release. Arriving well over a decade after the boom in big-screen Bible pictures ended, the film has no relation whatsoever to the stodgy spectaculars of the Chuck Heston era. Instead, Franco Zeffirelli’s lush movie is completely of its early-’70s moment, because it’s an unabashed celebration of hippie idealism. Depicting formative events in the life of the man who became St. Francis of Assisi, the film tracks young wastrel Francesco (Graham Faulkner), the son of a wealthy merchant in 13th-century Italy.
Returning from war traumatized, Francesco slowly discovers a divine connection with the natural world, then experiences a full religious epiphany. He gives away all of his possessions to become a beggar living in communion with flora and fauna, then rebuilds an abandoned church and forms a community of like-minded monks, all of whom shun the material world for the spiritual realm. When Francesco’s popularity invokes the violent ire of local leaders, the humble monk treks to Rome for an audience with Pope Innocent III (Alec Guiness), seeking guidance or punishment, whichever the pontiff deems necessary.
Zeffirelli unfurls this deceptively simple story across 135 leisurely minutes, and there’s an organic logic to his approach—like his main character, the director stops to smell the roses at every juncture. Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a rapturously beautiful movie in terms of visuals, with one painterly widescreen shot of a gorgeous outdoor location after another. The costumes are ornate to the point of being art objects, and even the romantic leads of the film are so beautiful that their physiques are like graceful sculptures. As if these flourishes didn’t sufficiently underline the parallels Zeffirelli wants to draw between St. Francis’ back-to-nature spiritualism and the dreams of the flower-power generation, the director enlisted Scottish minstrel Donovan (Mr. “Mellow Yellow” himself) to infuse the picture with a series of twee story songs commenting on the action.
Donovan’s tunes are crucial not only to the narrative (since much of Francesco’s journey is internal), but also to the enveloping counterculture vibe of the movie; listening to Donovan trill fruity lyrics about “jubilant joy” and other altered states illuminates the film’s design and themes. Brother Sun, Sister Moon has a handful of straightforward dramatic scenes, like those between Francesco and his incurably materialistic father, but much of the movie comprises airy montages of beautiful young Faulkner flitting about in wheat fields and other picturesque locations while Donovan sings on the soundtrack.
So even though the story eventually comes to a head in the moving scene between Francesco and the pope, during which Guiness effectively portrays his character’s massive but fleeting psychological change, there’s no question that Brother Sun, Sister Moon is so precious and slight that it frequently threatens to evaporate. Still, one can’t argue with the film’s humanistic intentions, and the beauty of Zeffirelli’s images is similarly irrefutable. Brother Sun, Sister Moon may not be the transformative experience the director presumably envisioned, but it’s passionate and unique.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon: GROOVY