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Eve TushnetDecember 09, 2022
“Of Gods and Men” (2011) shows its monks as individuals drawn like awestruck moths to the flame of Christ’s love. (CNS photo/Sony Pictures Classics)“Of Gods and Men” shows its monks as individuals drawn like awestruck moths to the flame of Christ’s love. (CNS photo/Sony Pictures Classics)

Catholics love movies about nuns—and we’ve got plenty to choose from. Whether you’re in the mood for a preconciliar classic like “The Bells of St. Mary’s” or a heartfelt indie comedy like “Little Sister,” or just your 15th comfort-watch of “Sister Act 2,” the cinematic sisterhood is there for you. There aren’t quite so many great movies about priests, but there are still enough to fill an Advent calendar, from “Becket” to “I Confess” to “The Exorcist” to “Doubt.”

But what about other niches in the vocational ecology? Try to come up with a list of great films about monks or friars, and at best you’ll be able to scrape together a handful. There are some truly excellent films about monks, with deep insights into the love of God and the nature of sacrifice. But why aren’t there more? And what does this absence cost us?

There are some truly excellent films about monks, with deep insights into the love of God and the nature of sacrifice. But why aren’t there more?

Of the eight films most relevant to our understanding of cinematic Catholic monks and friars, my own favorites in this strangely small subgenre remain unchanged: “Of Gods and Men” (2010) and “The Flowers of St. Francis” (1950). (For the purposes of this list I excluded movies about Orthodox Christian monks.) Both of these films, like most of the movies in this genre, are hagiographies. “Of Gods and Men,” directed by Xavier Beauvois, depicts the lives of nine Trappist monks in Tibhirine, Algeria, leading up to their kidnapping and murder in 1996 during the Algerian Civil War.

Beauvois shows the monks as part of their local community. They offer medical treatment to the Muslims among whom they live. They experience village life with the awkwardness of outsiders, but show the care and unwavering commitment of community members. One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves a young Muslim woman and an old Catholic monk discussing their experiences of love.

“Of Gods and Men” shows its monks as individuals drawn like awestruck moths to the flame of Christ’s love. Beauvois captures the emotional intensity of the monks’ spiritual lives—including the choices that lead them to their deaths. Scenes of Mass in the monastery are hushed and reverent; the scene in which they vote on whether or not to flee, knowing that staying will likely mean death, is electric. In the film’s most moving scene, the monks enjoy a meal together while listening to a cassette tape of “Swan Lake”: secular music, an ordinary dinner, yet transformed into a eucharistic liturgy by their knowledge that violent death is very near.

‘Flowers of St. Francis’

Roberto Rossellini’s “Flowers of St. Francis” is one of a few biopics about the stripped saint of Assisi. Rossellini’s film is set apart from the rest by several characteristics, all of which push the film further from Hollywood conventions. Most of the actors are real Franciscans, including the man who plays St. Francis himself. The friar who played Francis is also not named in the credits, turning his portrayal of humility into an act of humility. “Flowers” is an episodic film about the adventures and misadventures of several of the saint’s early followers. It’s a community portrait—less about Francis the individual, more about the Franciscan way of life.

And it’s funny. (The original Italian title, which translates roughly as “Francis, God’s Jester,” gets closer to the movie’s mood than its English title.) Rossellini’s film is an extended meditation on the paradoxes of the Gospel: the last shall be first, he who humbles himself shall be exalted, self-preservation is loss and self-sacrifice is gain. These paradoxes have become so familiar that it’s easy for us to forget how bizarre they are—how genuinely difficult a challenge they present. So Rossellini opens his film with Francis and his followers splashing through mud in a rainstorm, proclaiming their joy. “May all men recover love’s joy!” Francis cries—and goes galumphing off in a spray of filthy water.

All the Francis films show the saint and his followers choosing discomfort over comfort, ridicule over flattery.

All the Francis films show the saint and his followers choosing discomfort over comfort, ridicule over flattery. But where the other hagiographic films take these humiliations seriously, even self-seriously, maintaining a lugubrious piety in the face of mud and mockery, “Flowers” is full of punchlines and slapstick. Francis’ commands are unexpected and sometimes basically wrong. When an old man says he can’t wander the world begging in the cape he loves, Francis agrees—and tells him to get rid of both the cape and his shoes! In another episode, Francis tells another friar to trample him as punishment for his pride; the friar apologetically steps on him and quickly steps right back off. The movie’s comic tone gives it a grubby joy and a medieval weirdness that reflects its source material, the 14th-century compilation The Little Flowers of St. Francis.

The film’s most slapsticky episode is also its most heartfelt. A friar desperately wants to preach instead of staying home cooking for the others. Francis severely says he can preach as long as he starts out by saying, “I talk a lot but I accomplish little!” The obedient friar trots off and promptly gets mixed up in a siege. He preaches to the besiegers, who fling him around—they use him as a jump rope!—and are about to kill him when he’s rescued by a priest and taken to the warlord Nicolaio, a ridiculous figure trapped in his ornate armor. There’s banter among the executioners (“With your aim, you almost cut off the last one’s rump!”) and a hilarious moment in which the barely verbal Nicolaio indicates that he has read Aristotle. But the point of all this comedy is the miracle: Brother Ginepro converts the warrior, and the siege is lifted. Peace is accomplished through humiliation and surrender.

“Flowers” is the Francis biopic most concerned with the community, rather than the individual. In the two other Francis films I watched, St. Clare is portrayed as the only woman in Francis’ company, whereas in “Flowers” she appears together with other sisters. Perhaps because of this community focus, this is the only one of the three hagiographies in which poor people appear as opinionated individuals rather than an undifferentiated mass of need. One family is happy to dump their “simple” grandfather on Francis, and the old man becomes one of the community’s core followers. Everybody’s choices matter in this movie, and everybody’s soul is up for grabs.

Other Films About St. Francis

The other two Francis biopics I watched speak to my own spirituality less, but they have strengths Rossellini’s masterpiece lacks. Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) provided a generation of Catholics with a template for their faith: anti-authoritarian, nature-loving, youthful and idealistic. I mentioned the movie to a friend, and she sang from memory one of the movie’s sweetest songs, a paean to simplicity. She had learned the song, she said, from a Catholic layman who devoted himself to serving people in need: “the person who showed me what unconditional love is.” Zeffirelli emphasizes Francis and Clare’s dewy youth, echoing his famous 1968 adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.” “Brother Sun” is simplistic, and its second half, focusing on Francis’ conflicts with church hierarchs, is much weaker than its first half. But it’s an unabashedly inspirational film.

Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) provided a generation of Catholics with a template for their faith (Alamy).
Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) provided a generation of Catholics with a template for their faith (Alamy).

Liliana Cavani’s “Francesco” (1989) suffers from its casting. Mickey Rourke and Helena Bonham Carter, both talented actors, struggle to portray Francesco and Chiara (Clare). Rourke seems tamped-down, as if afraid of setting a foot wrong when playing a saint, and Bonham Carter, an actress with a gift for coquetry and command, gives Chiara a perpetual petulant moue. But in other respects Cavani blends medieval piety and modern concerns more completely than the other two filmmakers. We see the full effects of Francis’ military service. He is not just a spoiled rich kid, but a veteran suffering from PTSD. His clash with his merchant father follows a contemporary Pixar-film script in which the parents are always wrong. It is striking to see Francis take a new interest in the material basis of his family’s wealth, visiting the dyeing rooms and seeing the impoverished people who work themselves to the bone so he can party. This film interrogates the moral psychology of the conscience-stricken rich, though it shows less interest in the moral or spiritual lives of the poor.

“Francesco,” like most films of its era, mistrusts institutional authority.

“Francesco,” like most films of its era, mistrusts institutional authority. Rossellini starts by saying Francis won approval from Pope Innocent III; Zeffirelli and Cavani focus more on the clash between Francis’ poverty and the church’s luxury. Cavani gestures at later controversies in which people seeking to follow Francis veered into heresy, and she gives as much respect to persecuted heretics as to the loyal son of the church at the center of her film. Where Zeffirelli’s film shows its spiritual side in the lilting, golden shots of nature, Cavani uses El Greco colors and bleaker light to suggest a more damaged and doubt-ridden world. Francis himself doubts—and his anguished question to God receives an unexpected answer in this movie’s most haunting and trusting moment.

Other Films About Monks

“Dos Monjes (Two Monks)” is a 1934 melodrama from the Mexican director Juan Bustillo Oro, preserved and highlighted by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Two men vie for the love of one woman, but when Javier catches Ana in Juan’s arms, somebody shoots—and Ana, coming between the two men, dies instead of the intended target. Both men then become monks, neither knowing that the other has been tonsured. Their unwanted reunion, and the conflicting versions they give of that fatal encounter with Ana, unfold in gorgeous, Expressionist light and shadow. The monastery is a stage for near-allegorical scenes of guilt, uncertainty and forgiveness: a place of heightened emotion, as private and riven as the human heart.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Hawks and the Sparrows” (1966) is a comedy about the depredations of the owning classes on the poor. It follows a Little Tramp-like semi-vagabond and his slow-witted son through time and space, guided by a talking Marxist crow from the far-off country of Ideology. In the extended middle sequence that gives the film its title, father and son are friars ordered by St. Francis to preach to the birds. They suffer greatly in pursuit of this goal and think they’ve been successful—but the hawks still slaughter the sparrows. Francis rebukes the friars, saying they must preach that “this world must be changed,” and that in the future, “a man with blue eyes will bring awareness of class inequality.” “Hawks” is a film with as much whimsy and irony as moral conviction, and it wears its Catholic-Marxist fusionism lightly.

“The Name of the Rose” lacks either faith or atheism, and without those undercurrents, it’s just a costume drama.

“The Name of the Rose”: This 1986 adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel about heresy, murder and a secret library in a 14th-century Benedictine abbey was made with great skill. James Horner’s eerie music and Dante Ferretti’s gargoylicious production design are pure pleasure. Sean Connery portrays a Franciscan detective, allowing the film to play on the difference between mystery as the name of a literary genre in which a crime is solved, and mystery as a theological term exposing the unknowability of God. The movie condemns monks who live off the laypeople but is not able to say much beyond that about Christ’s poverty or the possibility of Christian comedy, the film’s two stated intellectual concerns. It feels as though the film lacks either faith or atheism, and without those undercurrents, it’s just a costume drama.

And last—no tribute to friars on film would be complete without a mention of Friar Tuck, the most-filmed friar of them all. My own favorite Tuck is the plump, sincere badger in Disney’s 1973 cartoon “Robin Hood.”

The Meaning of Monks

Perhaps there are fewer movies about monks and friars because there are fewer of them. The Vatican’s numbers for 2019 give 630,099 women religious and 414,336 priests, versus just 50,295 religious brothers. Tim Markatos, an Orthodox Christian film critic, suggests that filmmakers may also be limited by the material available to them: “Taking a quick look at my list of faith-related films, I’m seeing a lot of nun movies that are adaptations of books or something similar.... Is there simply more nun [intellectual property] to go around than monk IP? Or is there some other reason why the nun stories get the movie treatment and the monk stories don’t? I don’t have answers, only more questions.”

My own suspicion is that filmmakers just don’t see what kinds of stories monks and friars might be best suited to tell. Movies about Christian vowed religious are often movies about power and trust. Stories about priests sometimes show the priest as the rare good man with power. Perhaps more often, they question whether it is possible to be both respected, with all the power and protection that respect implies, and good. Movies about religious sisters, especially more recent films, often focus on the clash between religious hierarchy and the subordinate individual. In movies where a woman is the spiritual authority, the film often turns on the stark division between spiritual authority and hierarchical power.

Films about monks and friars, by contrast, often depict those who once had the social power of men but have deliberately stripped themselves of it. Where a religious vocation might offer a woman authority she would not be granted in lay life, films about monks and friars could emphasize their newfound submission and powerlessness. We hear a great deal nowadays about empowered women; the idea that there is something beautiful and holy in willingly disempowered men is even more countercultural.

Films about monks and friars often depict those who once had the social power of men but have deliberately stripped themselves of it.

Monks and friars would also offer new ways to tell stories about community. Many movies about nuns and sisters focus on the community as a world set apart: the nun genre overlaps with the “women’s picture,” that beloved genre of films about the trials and shared joys of a group of friends. There is no “men’s picture”; movies about the trials and shared joys of men who love one another are mostly war movies or sports movies. “The Flowers of St. Francis” and “Of Gods and Men” portray men who learn to love one another in loving God. They are “Steel Magnolias” with the stigmata, “The Joy Luck Club” with martyrdom instead of mahjong.

But what stood out to me more than anything else, as I watched these films, was the way they talked about love. Most of the movies about priests and women religious I have seen do not spend much time on love. They may explore the idea of vocation, and they certainly understand that romantic or sexual love might be a temptation, but they are not discourses on the nature of love in the way that so many of the films mentioned in this essay are.

Chiara in “Francesco” confesses her love for Francesco—and one of the brothers immediately chimes in, “For me it was like an earthquake.” This is a love of Francis that is romantic, and more than romantic. “Brother Sun” talks about love somewhat less, but in portraying Francis and Clare as young lovers united not in marriage but in celibacy, it offers a vision of love in which all our temporal loves point upward as hints about the love God offers us.

“Flowers” does not talk much about love, but it does portray the deep tenderness shown by Francis toward his followers and vice versa. Even “Hawks and Sparrows”strikes its most unresolved note when it has the friars close their preaching to both sets of birds by speaking of “love,” a word the birds take up and repeat as they fly away; we never find out what the birds think it means. It seems that love requires class-consciousness, requires structural change in society, and yet it goes beyond those intelligible demands into some as-yet-unknown mystery. “Hawks” is a comedy more comfortable undercutting ambitions than evoking longings. The repeated cry of the birds, “LOVE. LOVE. LOVE,” is the one exception.

I mentioned the scene in “Of Gods and Men” in which an old monk and a young woman discuss love. This is the most explicit, almost programmatic statement on the nature of love in any of these films, and it fits with the idea of love that they all share. The abbot, Dom Christian, will later explain the monks’ choice to remain in spite of the threat to their lives by saying: “We are martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. If death overtake us, despite ourselves, because up to the end, up to the end we’ll try to avoid it, our mission here is to be brothers to all. Remember that love is eternal hope. Love endures everything.” But the monks’ understanding of love has already been summarized best by the aging Brother Luc, who tells the village girl that he, too, has been in love, as she is in love now: “Several times, yes. And then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love.”

Perhaps this is the unique narrative nexus that stories of monks and friars can provide: the depiction of the romance of surrender, of wilfully losing all for love.

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