The Flowers of St. Francis, Witness, E.T. the Extraterrestrial

Weekly DVD/Video Picks
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

It’s the Catholic DVD event of the year: Vatican film list honoree The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini’s beautiful tribute to Franciscan spirituality and the best film ever made about St. Francis, arrives in the United States this week from Criterion. And it’s the original, unadulterated Italian version, complete with chapter-like intertitles. It’s got a U.S.-edition prologue, and bonus materials include interviews with film critic and priest Father Virgilio Fantuzzi and actress Isabella Rossellini, daughter of the director and Ingrid Bergman.

Though the film’s original title is Francis, God’s Jester, the real jesters are Francis’ disciples, trying with charming naiveté to stumble along in the footsteps of their master. It’s an apt picture of all our efforts in the spiritual life. As portrayed by the monks of the Nocere Inferiore monastery, Francis’ followers are certainly foolish — but also joyful, and even materialistic moderns recognize here something lacking in our desacrilized age.
Rossellini doesn’t pander by reinventing Francis as an eccentric free spirit or proto-flower child (as in Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon). Francis remains challenging to modern audiences, his childlike spirit joined to insistence on strict religious obligation and zeal for evangelization. These three principles converge with sublime perfection in the delightful climactic episode, in which Francis commands his followers “under holy obedience” to spin “like children at play” until they collapse — then strike out in whatever direction they are facing to preach the Gospel.

Content advisory: A scene of mistreatment of a friar; off-screen maiming of an animal. Fine family viewing. In Italian with English subtitles.

Witness (1985)

Debuting this week in a new special-edition DVD, Peter Weir’s Witness is one of the high points of 1980s American cinema. A compelling thriller, a moving love story, a thoughtful exercise in comparative cultures and a respectful exploration of religious community and nonviolence, Witness is a study in contrasts: the sheltered Amish boy (Lukas Haas) and his widowed mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) amid a dangerous world of urban violence and police corruption; the attraction between the demure but warm-blooded Amish widow and tough Philadelphia detective John Book (Harrison Ford); the “English” world through Amish eyes and vice versa.

Content advisory: Some deadly graphic violence; brief nudity and a sexual reference; some objectionable language. Mature viewing.

E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)

With earlier multi-disc editions out of print, E.T. returns this week to DVD in an affordable one-disc edition. Note, though, that it’s the 2002 version of the film, with added/restored scenes and pointless PC tweaks (a reference to someone looking “like a terrorist” deleted; federal agents’ guns digitally changed to walkie-talkies). Purists wanting the original 1982 version may have to hold out awhile longer, or dig up the 2002 two-disc set with both editions.

The film, so universal in its appeal, is the director’s most personal. Spielberg’s childhood is mirrored by that of lonely Elliot (Henry Thomas) — abandoned by his father, raised by his hard-working suburban mother. It’s a life depicted affectionately but not idyllically. The death-resurrection-ascension storyline is enhanced by religious symbolism: E.T.’s glowing finger reaching out to Elliot’s like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam; E.T.’s heart glowing like the Divine Mercy image of Christ.

Content advisory: Mild menace; some crude language, including one infamous obscenity; inadvertent intoxication; problematic family situations. Discernment required for younger viewers.

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