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A Dorset St Francis inspires

01 January 2016

Stephen Brown on new films, including one made on location at Hilfield Priory

Little Portion Films

Preaching to the birds: Francis, played by Peter Stickney, in Finding St Francis

Preaching to the birds: Francis, played by Peter Stickney, in Finding St Francis

THE work of Franciscan Brothers and Sisters, often living among the most dispossessed, poorest, and displaced in our land, has wielded huge influence on Anglican spirituality — mine included. Much of its pioneering energy continues to spring from Hilfield Friary, in Dorset, the mother house of the Society of St Francis (SSF). It became the location for a new film, Finding Saint Francis (Cert. 12), which is about its Assisi-born founder Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (1182-1226), better known as Francesco.

The film, whose première was at the BFI Southbank, in London, was written and directed by Paul Alexander, an actor long associated with the SSF.

Peter Stickney plays Peter Stone, a burnt-out young executive who has been something in the City until the untimely death of a friend. He arrives at Hilfield for rest and recuperation, but is invited almost immediately to play Francis of Assisi in a film being made by Alexander. It is a clever framing device, whereby a tale about the past is told through use of a contemporary one that involves making a film. (A good example of this, also shot in Dorset, was The French Lieutenant’s Woman.)

This new film, available as a DVD to buy, or else stream/download through Vimeo, is set entirely in the 21st century, making the point that the simplicity of Francis’s teaching still has relevance today. The modern narrative entails Stone’s moving from lostness to searching, finding meaning, and then living it, before setting back on the long road that leads to perfect joy.

In the process of all this, Stone becomes Living Bread. The parallels with Francis are plain to see, linked as they are by the director’s commentary on the saint’s story, and Angela Thomas’s beautifully unadorned watercolours.

I was particularly struck by the way Francis’s (and hence Stone’s) Christian development is portrayed here: not in leaps and bounds, or some ever-upward trajectory, but more like snakes and ladders. Francis’s acknowledging a well-intentioned but rash use of his father’s money to repair a church is as much a revelation of divine love as his embrace of Lady Poverty.

Alexander uses techniques more normally associated with theatre than film. Actors playing multiple roles wear items (such as a skull cap) that are mere tokens of who and what their characters represent. This kind of distancing from the past helps viewers to be part of the on-screen story. This is especially true of Stone’s character, as he becomes transformed into a Francis for today.

In another film, Jesus of Montreal, performers of a Passion play become the very people whom they are portraying. Finding Saint Francis could have no greater compliment than being compared to that remarkable Canadian film.

The DVD comes with a booklet that suggests ways in which Finding Saint Francis can be used for meditation and discussion.

The film trailer can be seen and the film can be bought at www.findingsaintfrancis.com.

 

WHAT a difference marketing strategies can make to a film. In the Heart of the Sea (Cert. 12A) was originally scheduled for release last spring. There was never any doubt that, among other things, it possessed an element of adventure, but, in the words of its director, Ron Howard, it was “about man’s eternal struggle against the awe-inspiring forces of nature”.

Howard is no slouch when it comes to directing testosterone-fuelled pieces such as Rush and Apollo 13, but even then he is equally capable of drawing nuanced character performances out of his players. Delaying the UK release until the Christmas holidays turned Warner Brothers’ advertising into promotion of a blockbuster pitted against the latest Star Wars epic.

No need for tears over this. It will probably bring in an audience that might have given it a miss if it were “only” a movie with more than a hint of religious struggle.

As in Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of the same name, the film introduces the author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw). It claims that the real-life experiences in 1820 aboard the Nantucket whaling ship Essex provided the basis for the novel Moby Dick. This is true as far as it goes, apparently; but Melville also drew on other whaling experiences, including his own, for a work that has fascinated readers ever since its publication in the mid-19th century.

What Moby Dick and the film have in common, when not hijacked by the latter’s PR department’s action-movie fixation, is a quest for a reality beyond surface appearances. It will remain in the eye of the beholder whether this particular Leviathan represents utter chaos, or serves as a reminder of whose world this actually is.

Remember that, by the time of the book’s British edition, Melville had changed the word that describes the moment when Ahab encounters Moby Dick from “discover”, which relates to finding something pre-existent, to “perceive”, which is about our visions, and how we interpret them. The film is sceptical about the reality of monsters, while simultaneously pondering what it calls “the sea’s dark secrets”.

Then, wham! An 85-ton whale comes along and capsizes the boat. It is an amazing spectacle, especially when you consider that it was filmed in a huge water-tank in land-locked Hertfordshire.

In the Heart of the Sea only tacitly acknowledges the strength of the Society of Friends’ influence on Nantucket inhabitants and their emphasis on self-control. Sailors in the film mainly are played as strong, silent types, worthy of a Quaker meeting. The advent of shipwreck, deaths, and cannibalism, with their endurance of storms and desolation forces them to question their beliefs, values, and (somewhat anachronistically) the way they make their living.

At this point, however, the film goes all ecologically aware on us about saving the whale. And would Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), the abrasive First Mate, manage to look so good in such conditions?

It is a film that does not quite make up its mind what it wants to be — spiritual, ethical, adventurous, or epic. No wonder Warner Brothers stepped in and rebranded it.

 

IOWA, often known as the breadbasket of America, is also considered one of the safest places to live in the United States — not that you would get that impression from Ramin Bahrani’s 2012 film At Any Price (Cert. 18), now reaching these shores.

Sin crouches under every stalk of corn as farmers vie with one another for survival in the face of agribusiness giants. Henry Whipple struggles to stay solvent. As played by the versatile actor Dennis Quaid (best known as Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire), he is in thrall to his father and his father before him, who had successfully developed the farming interests he now runs.

Fear of failure leads him into desperate actions. He and Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) compete in their attempt to sell local farmers high-yielding genetically modified crops, supplied by a company ironically named Liberty. We are given no reason to believe that Jim is anything but a straightforward, churchgoing man, but, like his rival, he is in bondage to Liberty’s morally ambivalent trade.

We know that Henry, on the other hand, is suspected of illicitly harvesting and washing the company’s seeds before reselling them. His son, Dean (Zac Efron), does not care about working the land, despite his father’s deep desire for him to do so. There is also a parallel and nastier rivalry occurring between Dean and Johnson’s son, Brad (Ben Marten). In their case, it concerns who is the better stock-car-racing driver.

At one level, it is the Cain and Abel story all over again: a world in which one man’s toil is looked on kindly, and the other man’s is not. There will be blood before the credits roll. Henry’s downward slide emanates from a wish to please his father — to demonstrate that the business is in good hands. Dean’s moral descent stems from different motives.

In either situation, things go wrong when people stray from hallowed values. We are being told that the more we abandon the land (like Dean), or violate it (like Henry), so our moral and spiritual decline increases, too. With every succeeding generation, it would seem, people are getting worse. Not even a communal rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” assures us that there is any sense of mutually agreed standards.

This is underlined by church scenes in which the Lutheran pastor uses Revelation to remind the congregation that there will be divine judgement on us. We are left wondering how this will be manifested here, as the film’s moral compass wavers. It then enlists Galatians to make several points; we are “to bear one another’s burdens” — something rather deficient for most of the film. Despite what has happened, this crop-buster of a film dubiously claims that “we reap what we sow” (6.7).

Iowa may get ignored as one of those so-called “fly-over states”. At Any Price tells us, none too subtly, that, even in remote places, we would be as foolish as those Galatians in refusing to live by the Spirit, and thus failing to garner a harvest of love, joy, peace, etc. I felt I was back in Sunday school.

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