The Criterion Files: F For Fake/The Flowers of St. Francis

After skipping a week*, it’s time for another dip into the Criterion Files, where I’ll be hand-picking a pair of titles from the much-vaunted Criterion Collection and giving them the (abridged) ACVF treatment. Last time, I looked at two films which share a common thread together in the form of genre. While I’ll endeavor to match films up based on how they’re alike, sometimes it’s good to pair titles together based on how they’re different, and you can’t pick two movies that are more opposite to each other than Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis and Orson Welles’ F For Fake. Where Welles’ film deceives and manipulates at every turn, Rossellini’s is honest and forthcoming; where the former layers complexity upon complexity, the latter maintains a soulful simplicity throughout.

Ostensibly, both seek to portray (with varying degrees of authenticity) events in the lives of real people– in Welles’ film, that includes infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory** and equally notorious fraud Clifford Irving, the man who created a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Meanwhile, Rossellini makes Saint Francis his subject, though the film’s plot doesn’t concern itself much with the reality of the man’s life as much as it does with telling laudatory and extravagant stories from his life as parables. But that’s a slim connective strand, and the films very much stand apart from one another in the most contrasting ways possible. We’ll begin this week’s column with:

F For Fake, Orson Welles, 1975

F For Fake has long held a high position in my personal top ten, and I knew it would make an appearance in this series one day. So, here I am, confronting inevitability and getting it out of the way– though really I’m just doing it justice, since I’ve written nary a word about it outside of the aforementioned list. I’ve got good enough reasons. Mostly I just haven’t found occasion to talk about it, but it’s a film that absolutely must be discussed to appreciate– it’s intricate, tricky, and endlessly cunning in the way it employs editing, that invisible art, to con its audience and lead them on. You can’t watch F For Fake once and expect to grasp all of its chicanery. I’ve seen it many more times than that and I still don’t.

But I do understand why the film is considered so classic and necessary today, even if the majority of the critical community despised it on its release nearly four decades ago. Fakery aside, Welles’ work here led to the birth of modern editing techniques. Maybe there’s an argument to be made over whether or not that’s a good thing, since we’re talking about the film that ushered in the era of the “MTV” style of editing. Welles employs rapid fire cutting here and splices together his rich, dense film essay in such a way as to make it feel like the pinnacle of mercurial filmmaking; today, we see this sort of quick intercutting in everything from the programming slate of the aforementioned “Music” Television, to Michael Bay films, to the Saw franchise. Oh, sure, F For Fake has its positive contributions– compare this film to the works of, say, Errol Morris, and you’ll see the benefits it has yielded since its release. But popularly it’s the way Welles’ work here paved the way for attention-deficit styles of editing that solidifies it as a classic. You have to take the bad with the good, they say.

Stylistically, though, the film doesn’t much resemble the massively influential director’s past works. But that’s to his benefit. If F For Fake represents a departure for the director on aesthetic and technical planes, its proclivities and themes and subjects certainly all fit right into his wheelhouse. A movie about two renowned fakers, made with layers of fakery and by a filmmaker who has a reputation as a faker himself? Genius. Remember, we’re talking about the man who made his mark on the world with his utterly fallacious mock broadcast of War of the Worlds. For him to grow a cinematic onion of deceit seems perfectly reasonable given his penchant for charlatanism and his fascination with magic. F For Fake might be widely remembered for its huge impact on mainstream media– from television to film, from reality shows to horror flicks– but among cineastes and scholars it’ll always be thought of as one of the all-time best examples of cinematic sleight of hand.

The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini, 1950

In comparison to Welles’ picture, and taken on its own merits, Rossellini’s modest but joyful The Flowers of St. Francis can only be called austere. Coming from the director who brought global exposure to the Italian neorealist movement only four years prior with Rome, Open City, this may not come as a surprise; considering the subject matter of his film, it should even less so. It’s hard to imagine the life of Francis of Assisi being told with a sheen of opulence and luxury, after all, and so Rossellini’s picture is stripped down almost to the utmost end of minimalism. The sets are rural landscapes and bare-bones huts, the actors are bona fide monks, and the film itself clocks in at just under an hour and a half. To call it humble would be an understatement.

That absence of complication becomes the film’s central lesson. Rossellini’s picture wears its heart on its sleeve, and remains honest about its intentions and its emotions consistently from start to finish. He’s not trying to dupe anyone here; what you see in The Flowers of St. Francis is what you get, though maybe the moral isn’t quite so clear at a glance. Indeed, a cursory reading of the film can render it a strictly religious experience, and while it’s certainly about religion on the surface, beneath that there’s more to chew on than just spiritual matters. Put more succinctly, Rossellini didn’t make this movie to convince people of the virtues of Franciscan ideology and living.

What the director did seek to accomplish in The Flowers of St. Francis is demonstrate how the values of a life lived simply can trump those of a more complex path. Consider most well-known vignette in the film’s structure, in which Brother Ginepro– interestingly, in a movie named after him, Francis as a character often takes a backseat to his fellow monks–  is forcefully brought before the tyrannical, brutish Nicolaio (legendary Italian actor Aldo Fabrizi). We first meet Nicolaio as he’s encased in his suit of armor, a monstrosity of steel so outrageously ornate that an entire team of men is required to get the warlord in and out of it; the get-up is purposefully elaborate, striking a contrast with Ginepro’s basic, meager friars’ robe***. Taken only in how the two men adorn themselves, the monk prevails. And when their respective territories are compared, the monk is victorious again. Nicolaio’s world is chaos, a noisy and bustling encampment existing in disharmony with nature; meanwhile, Ginepro inhabits the quiet countryside with his brothers, enjoying a near-perpetual sense of outer peace. 

Is Rossellini, in highlighting the disparities between the discontinuous world and the world of the Franciscans, attempting to convert his audiences to a life a worship and humility? Most likely not; his film questions the rule of religious law versus the desire to do good no matter the circumstances too much for The Flowers of St. Francis to be about telling it on the mountain. But ultimately, he is trying to champion honesty and morality over detached cynicism. 

*For those not following my restored Twitter account, I’ve been sick with a nasty cold for about a week. Suffice to say that this wasn’t at the top of my “to-do” list.
**For an art forger, de Hory is surprisingly honest. Irving seems like much more of a snake-in-the-grass type, if you ask me.
***His third set in the film; the man just can’t help but give his clothes away to the poor, no matter how sternly Francis instructs him not to.  


3 thoughts on “The Criterion Files: F For Fake/The Flowers of St. Francis

    • Check it out, Cas– it’s definitely something worth watching as part of a rounded cinematic background, which is why I checked it out in the first place years ago, but it’s really, really engaging and clever (as we might expect from Orson Welles).

  1. Pingback: Today’s Links – February 20, 2012 |

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