Brother Sun, Sister Moon (Italian: Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna) is a 1972 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker. The film is a biopic of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Francesco is the beloved son of his parents, Pietro and Pica Bernardone. His real name is Giovanni but everyone calls him Francesco because he enjoys speaking French with his French mother instead of Italian. He is a spoiled son. His father, Pietro, is a wealthy textile merchant who gives his son anything he asks for. Even outfitting him in armor so he can go to war and distinguish himself in battle.
Francesco returns home from the war between Assisi and Perugia a changed young man. Struck by a feverish illness that has forced him to leave the war, Francesco lies on his bed tormented by visions of his past when he was a boisterous, arrogant youth. During a long recovery process, he slowly finds God in poverty, chastity and obedience, experiencing a physical and spiritual renewal.
Healthy again, Francesco returns to his normal life as a rich young man. However, to the consternation of his parents, he begins to spend most of his time surrounded by nature, flowers, trees, animals and poetry as he becomes more and more reluctant to resume his prior life style. Pietro’s obsession with gold now fills Francesco with revulsion, creating an open confrontation between Francesco and Pietro.
Francesco wanders into the basement where the family business is located. He feels the heat and humidity of the dye vats, passing through colorful lots of drying cloth, to see the workers with their families laboring in the heat without much rest. Rejecting his father’s offer to take over the family business, he instead pulls the laborers out of the building to enjoy the daylight. Then he throws the costly textiles out of the window to the poor gathered below. When his father sees the loss, Francesco invites him to join in throwing the cloth out the window so he can know the joy of being free of worldly possessions.
Pietro, completely frustrated, beats Francesco, drags him to the bishop’s palace and humiliates his son in front of Assisi’s bishop and the rest of the population. Lovingly, Francesco renounces all worldly possessions and his middle-class family including the name “Bernardone”, he removes his brilliant clothing and leaves Assisi, naked and free from his past, to live in the beauties of nature as an ascetic to enjoy a simple life as a man of God.
Francesco comes upon the ruins of the chapel of San Damiano, where he hears God’s voice asking him to “restore My Church”. Believing the Voice means San Damiano, Francesco begins to beg for rocks to rebuild that church. Much to the dismay of his family, some of Francesco’s friends join him and gradually gains a following from the sons of the wealthy who begin to minister amongst the poor and the suffering.
The bishop supports Francesco, since he is rebuilding a church without pay and performing the works of mercy Christ demands of His followers. Francesco’s friend Bernardo happily joins him after returning from the 2nd Crusade, a venture that left him in sorrow and emptiness. Two other friends, Silvestro and Giocondo, admiring Francesco’s new vocation, help to rebuild San Damiano.
In a touching scene, during a rainy afternoon, Francesco and his friends separate to beg food from the families of Assisi. Francesco comes to his family’s home. Seeking forgiveness he begins to recite the Beatitudes causing his mother much anguish while Pietro pretends not to hear, refusing to be reconciled with their son.
Clare, a beautiful young woman also from a wealthy family, serves and cares for lepers of the community. She joins the brothers in their life of poverty. Meanwhile in Assisi, the city’s nobility and wealthy merchandising families protest against Francesco and his group, worried about them “corrupting” the whole of Assisi’s youth and they command Francesco’s friend Paolo to hinder and stop the so-called “minor brothers”.
One day the rebuilt chapel is set on fire, and one of Francesco’s followers is killed (This scene, introduced for dramaric effect, is unhistorical). That people can hate so much causes Francesco much sorrow. He blames himself but cannot understand what he has done wrong. He then decides to travel to walk to Rome and to seek out the answers from Pope Innocent III.
In Rome, Francesco is stunned by the enormous wealth and power shown in the clothing fhe papal court surrounding the throne of St. Peter. When granted an audience with the Pope, Francesco breaks from reciting Paolo’s carefully prepared script and calmly protests against pomp and worldliness, reciting some of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount praising humility to protest that Christ’s teachings are totally opposite to Rome’s obsession with wealth. The cardinals, bishops and abbots of the papal court are insulted at having the words of Jesus thrown in their faces. Francesco and his friends are expelled and finally accepting his admiration toward Francesco, Paolo decides to join them. Francesco tries to protect Paolo, saying that he is not one of them but his friend insists on joining the friars, convincing Francesco of the sincerity of his conversion, and they are put out with the others.
On his throne Pope Innocent, seemingly waking from a dream, orders Francesco and his friends be brought back. The Pope addresses Francesco, “In our obsession with original sin we have forgotten original innocence.” In language from one of the Psalms Innocent prays that Francesco’s order “flourish like the palm.”
Then to everyone’s astonishment, Pope Innocent kneels, kisses Francesco’s feet and blesses him and his companions, wishing for them a long world-wide society of men and women willing to serve God in humility. One of the final lines (mirroring the anti-establishment attitude of the 1970s are placed juxtaposition to the well-established tone of the film) place the sincerity of the Pope’s response in question when an unnamed cardinal observing what the Pope has done comments to a bishop: “Don’t be alarmed, His Holiness knows what he is doing. This is the man who will speak to the poor, and bring them back to us.” This line actually has some historical value since the heretical Cathars, otherwise known as Albigensians, dressed as humbly as Francesco and his followers, were finding followers in Southern France and other parts of Europe by denouncing the wealth of the Catholic Church, while rejecting many Catholic dogmas and doctrines, especially the need for an ordained priesthood.
The film finishes with the sight of Francesco slowly walking alone into the distance in the countryside as Donovan sings “Brother Sun and Sister Moon”.