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Beautiful and Damned

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Ludwig

directed by Luchino Visconti

The Story of a Humble Christian

by Ignazio Silone, translated by William Weaver
Harper & Row, 206 pp., $5.95

Save the Tiger

directed by John G. Avildsen

Even supposing that you have sufficient perspicacity and science to know everything, suppose that you are familiar with every language, the course of the stars and all else, what is there in all this to boast of? One single demon knows more about any of them than all mortal men together. Yet there is one thing of which the Devil is incapable and which constitutes the glory of man: loyalty to God.

Poor Zeffirelli. His sentimental paean to Francis of Assisi appears to be arriving at a bad moment. The hippies have disappeared, the flower children are barely a memory, the Woodstock phenomenon which blew every square’s mind a few years ago at theaters across the land can’t make it today on TV, the Jesus freaks are the spiritual nasties, and the only heavy changes we’re experiencing are conformism and country club sophistry—the Smilin’ Jack folderol of the Fifties.

Graham Faulkner, a winsome newcomer who could probably have been much happier as one of the Monkees, presents the young Francis as a sort of super-straight who returns home from the horrors of the Crusades a disillusioned anti-establishmentarian seeking answers. The parallel we are expected to draw between the Crusades and Nam; the color shots of medieval squalor and unctuous ecclesiastical splendor; the strawberry fields over which the wanton Francis jubilantly bounds after a Botticellian beauty whose locks ripple in the wind; the liberating scene where Francis strips in the town square, as nude as the kids used to be on the meadow at Central Park, announcing that henceforth he shall live “in the spirit,” without clothes and without possessions, “without those shadows we call our servants,” as free as Christ, as free as the apostles—surely these gamy aspects of Brother Sun, Sister Moon suggest less a hagiography of a legendary thirteenth-century figure than a Zeffirelli fantasy about purity, about poverty; about grooving with nature and nature’s ways, a fantasy; one assumes, maculately conceived after a transatlantic Zeffirelli conversion to the money-making tribal culture of Hair or God spell or Jesus Christ Superstar. An unchristian assumption only aggravated, alas, by the pastoral ditties of Donovan on the track:

Birds are singing sweet and low
From the trees that gently blow….
If you want to live life free
Take your time, go slowly….1

Zeffirelli has never had the assertiveness and voluptuous austerity of Visconti, his mentor. What he does have—and has in abundance—is a rapt eye for fetching sets, gorgeous clothes, lambent Umbrian faces, and here and there, as the camera pans in and out of Assisi, a touch of the devotional intimacy, the softness and solidity of the paintings of Giotto or Cimabue—all these, that is, as one might imagine them in a fashion spread in Harper’s Bazaar.

One shows off what one has.” So says Mme de Stael, who would always make sure to show off her bare beautiful arms at her salon—and that’s pretty much Franco Zeffirelli’s philosophy too. In Romeo and Juliet he gave us a world well lost for love; in Brother Sun, Sister Moon we have a world well lost for God. But though star-crossed lovers are of an eternal appeal to the young, perhaps the pop evangelism, the melodious innocence of the Zeffirelli saint, shall soon be twanging pitifully in the wilderness, all too vulnerable after the dissolution of the revolutionary hoopla of the Sixties, and shall offend the pious and affront the purist.

For instance, in actuality, if I am remembering correctly, a much older Francis participated in the Crusades in order to bring the word to the sultan of Egypt, he was, moreover, not the angelic bumpkin of Zeffirelli’s fancy, but an educated man who was not always above an act of sacrificium intellectus. When Francis told the monks and the clerks to close the books, to attend to the beasts, birds, and flowers, to prepare themselves for a life in heaven by making themselves morally worthy of the beauty and goodness of a life on earth, he meant it—meant it as unaccommodatingly as Jesus among the lepers and demoniacs, Jesus denouncing the Pharisees and Lawyers, the Jesus of the miracles and parables.

The peculiar psychology of Francis—the effaced sexuality, the mystical zest—has always been a stumbling block, difficult to communicate, even to believers; and elsewhere, as a genre, unless interiorized, unless a contemporary expression of spiritual nostalgia or disarray, as in the works of Dreyer or Bresson, a hell of a struggle, really, to sell to the ungodly. The exception, I suppose, is the hard-edged stateliness of the masterful The Gospel According to St. Matthew, but Pasolini, by adhering to a scrupulous reenactment of the life of the Nazarene, disarmed dissenters. At the Museum of Modern Art, however, where I saw Brother Sun, Sister Moon, most of the long hairs in the audience dissolved in titters whenever the beatitudes of Francis were delivered in earnest—and Zeffirelli, unaware, apparently, which way the wind has been blowing, can be mighty earnest. Happily, though, amid the mush there’s one burst of esprit, dear to Zeffirelli’s heart: the scene where the naked Francis, dewy in sunlight, turns to his parents and to the bishop of his church, and elatedly exclaims: “There are no more fathers, there are no more sons.” For a moment it is the Jesus of the gospels come to life…. Well, sort of.

Visconti: far more talented, far more complex than Zeffirelli has ever been or ever will be, an actual presence on the screen where the lyrical Zeffirelli is mere personality, if that. And yet in matters of authority and rebellion, freedom and determinism, subjects which seem to have enchanted both, we always know where Zeffirelli stands and we never know, quite, where Visconti does. To reconcile the Visconti ethic with the Visconti aesthetic, to reconcile his professed Marxism with his sulphurous hedonistic tastes, to bring together cogently his utopian hope in the liberation of history through the advent of socialism with his flagrantly reactionary attachment to the trills and frills of neoclassical adornment—how difficult that is: an example of ideological cross-purposes surpassed only by the absurdity of Marshal Stalin sitting in the Kremlin during the war years and watching over and over his favorite film, The Great Waltz, the old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer spectacle about Johann Strauss.

Visconti, of course, is one of the most realistic of directors. The pictorial details and density of his images are always indomitably there. Costa-Gavras, a Marxist colleague, using a bluntly observant documentary style, produces one knockout after another—his latest, State of Siege, has just opened—but artistically; compared to Visconti, he is nowhere. In Visconti every gesture, every turn of a head, every macabre bit of bric-a-brac is striking—striking, though, just so long as we can subtract them from what they are being so striking about. For even among the most satisfying of his films, or the most satisfying moments of these films, works such as Ossessione or Senso or Bellissima, the ballroom sequence of Il Gattopardo, the slaughter of the bully boys in The Damned, the arabesque of cabanas and striped bathing suits as the late afternoon sun dips down over the Lido in Death in Venice, there has always been a sense of strain, of dreams, bad dreams, of a guilty conscience knowing it is play-acting, unable to do anything about the play-acting, going on and on.

No wonder, then, Visconti’s over-wrought interest in codes of honor, games of power, nocturnal orgies; no wonder that following his career one thinks of him as one of those aristocratic dandies of religious revivals who aspire to the thorny way, who strenuously seek to give up everything to be scourged by the savior—for a day, for a night. Asceticism can be beautiful too, baby.

The famous fastoso style, the fetishes: Silvana Mangano’s hats, Helmut Berger’s legs (the parody of The Blue Angel in The Damned), Anna Magnani and her black slip, Katina Paxinou with her loud mouth and doleful eyes; the heroes and heroines who never seem to have a future (the typical Visconti young men are powerhouses forever uncertain of precisely what to do with the energy they generate; they set off narcissistic sparks, they improvise, while the women, usually older women of troubled countenances and soured emotions, take command—or try to); the plenitude of derangements and decor—these create a certain pugnacity, a cynical sense of unresolved self-questionings that grow stronger and stranger from film to film, until now, in Ludwig, Visconti presents us with not, as so many suppose, a polychromatic period piece about a monarchical libertine, but rather an unconscious parody of Visconti’s own embattled romanticism, a diatribe against “privileged liberty,” an old morality play in which the free soul is the damned soul—a dyspeptic Visconti, as it were, lecturing himself.

And lecturing himself none too attentively at that. There’s a hilarious moment in the current opus, as hilarious as it is inexplicable, where the eccentric Ludwig, the apostle of Wagner, sails gloomily across the Panavision screen in a swan-driven boat to meet his latest minion awaiting him on the bank of a grotto. Ludwig is gliding over these mysterious waters enwrapt in the swan-driven boat especially built to enrich his memories of Lohengrin, while all about him the air is drenched with the sweetly fluttering strains of “Song to the Evening Star”—from Tannhäuser. The Mad King of Bavaria indeed!2

Francis: Hesse calls him somewhere “the darling of mankind.” But can we call him that, really? In what popularity poll of today would he reign pre-eminent? If Francis of Assisi were ever to preach to the suburbs of America he would be sent away instantly to the shrink—that is, he would if one of the dudes of Madison Avenue did not spot him first and sign him for a talk fest. Zeffirelli affectedly contrasts the minoritas of Francis, the brown bedraggled robe, the bruised bleeding feet, the tonsured pate, with the cockalorum pomp of Pope Innocent III, the blowzy Byzantine gewgaws of his cardinals and his court. The contrast, to be sure, is theatrical nonsense, besides being historically inaccurate, but it is instructive nonetheless.

The mendicant life of the gentle Francis never presented itself as a threat to the established order, so we cannot count Francis among the Donatists and Manichees. He defended Rome as much as he defended the faith, and not the way the Irishmen in Joyce defend Catholicism, all the while wishing to rid Ireland of its churches and its priests. And yet for Francis, “the good is diffusive of itself,” a matter of belief among a community of believers. The sacraments of the Church, always, but never Her riches, Her vanities, Her structural simulacra.

The medieval penchant of putting a queenly tiara on the Virgin’s head, of depicting a handsome Christ in kingly glory—these are appropriations of earlier myths, implemented by the Church Fathers to ensure the panoply of the Church Visible, without any warrant whatever in the teachings of the gospels. In the Bible we do hear of the comeliness of Absalom or Tamar, of the beauty of the female form in the “Song of Songs.” We know of the seductiveness of the gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology, of the extreme aestheticism of the “Symposium.” The gospels, however, are unique in spiritual literature for the complete absence of references to physical grace or physical power. “You judge after the flesh,” says Jesus, meaning wrongly, according to outward appearances, not to inner truth. Francis, more than any other saint, incarnates such truth.

The gospel of Francis, then, is an insurgent gospel, a gospel of practice. At the heart of Franciscan humility there is an awakening of the heart, as natural as a flower opening to the sun, the parched land to the rain, an awakening that Francis celebrates in the most famous of his hymns, the “Cantico delle creature“—and not just frate sole or sora luna, as Zeffirelli has it, but sora nostra morte corporale as well. The life and death of every creature of the earth held together through the divine love of God, and held together equally. The radicalism of Francis—and it is that—is a constant rebuke to the institutionalization of the Christian faith, a faith which, as Nietzsche says, may have been doomed at the start because falsified at the start, as soon as it became a power among other powers, a political phenomenon like any other political phenomenon.

That mankind lies on its knees before the opposite of that which was the origin, the meaning, the right of the evangel, that in the concept “Church” it has pronounced holy just that which the “bringer of the glad tidings” felt to be beneath and behind himself—one would look in vain for a greater example of world historical irony.

In Ignazio Silone’s play about Celestine V, the pope immortalized in Dante as the man who “fece per viltá il gran rifiuto,” the one who out of cowardice made the great refusal, we have an instance of what Nietzsche calls “world historical irony” imposing itself from generation to generation, an instance of evangelical idealism vs. hierarchical realism, of the unsullied and sullied paths to salvation. Celestine, an aged artless Morronese monk, unschooled, unworldly, poorer than the poor to whom he ministered from the Abbey at Sulmona, through a fluke in the power politics of the day ascended to the throne at the Holy See in 1294, about seventy years or so after Francis’s death. But the convolutions of the Curia, of the warring royal houses and the neighboring kingdoms, were no match for his honesty and his faith, or as Catholic historians prefer to remark, his naïveté (Celestine, unmindful of the patronage system, awarded indulgences to all and sundry); shortly after his coronation, on the advice of his successor, Boniface VIII, he abdicated.

Dante hated Boniface, held Boniface in contempt for his chicanery, thought him an organization-man heavy; but, shockingly enough, Dante comes down harder—ethically harder, aesthetically harder—on Celestine, for it seemed to him that a good man miraculously placed in the seat of power could have transformed Rome; that he did not, that he chose to be the diffident “humble Christian” he had always been, which is a way of saying, I suppose, that he chose to be as honest as he had always been, accounts for “il gran rifiuto,” accounts as well for Celestine’s presence in the pit in the Inferno.

Dante’s steely-hearted judgment is surely to be resisted. In fact, to me it can make no sense at all. Corruption is so deeply embedded among the mighty, not as a phantasmagoria to be guessed at, but palpable acts to taste and to see (“My God, my God, what filth, what abjection, what wickedness,” Celestine moans; “I never dreamed I would have to meet such base deceit here, here, at the summit of Your Church”), so much not a way of life, but the way of life, that even when a miracle occurs and a holy man comes to rule we may be sure that for the powers that be it is merely a momentary aberration in the scheme of things, one which will evaporate as effortlessly as a dull cloud on a summer’s day.

Silone’s play is pedestrian, without an echo of the philosophical permutations of its natural counterpart, the Grand Inquisitor scene in Dostoevsky, but the debate Silone has arranged between Boniface and Celestine during the play’s closing moments, the serpent of realpolitik slowly engulfing the shepherd and his rapidly depleting flock, though, as Silone presents it, simple as pie, is nevertheless apt enough. The temptation to power, Boniface insists, is omnipotent and omnipresent. All men want it, all men seek it. Since Celestine, with all his probity, all his homiletics, has not the power to abolish political power, would he then turn it over to the enemies of the Church? That is the point, Boniface assures Celestine, using the sort of candor so many have used before him and so many have used after, East or West: “The rest is just talk.” Celestine answers him the only way he knows how.

Your Holiness, if you look out of that window, you will see on the steps of the cathedral a ragged old woman, a beggar, a creature of no importance in the life of this world, who sits there from morning to evening. But in a million years, or a thousand million years, her soul will still exist, because God made it immortal. While the kingdom of Naples, of France, of England, all the other kingdoms, with their armies, their tribunals, their fanfares, and the rest will have returned to nothingness.

The argument of the guileless Celestine is the argument of Francis in his Admonitions, it is the hopelessly unpragmatic argument of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Silone sees in Celestine what Zeffirelli sees in Francis, an exemplary emissary of Christ and Christ’s ways, a forlorn witness to the truth among the myrmidons and mercenaries, the seraphic defender of pure primitive belief which has “survived at the margins of the Church and sometimes against the Church.”

And yet—to ask the question Zeffirelli and Silone never ask—has it? And if so what sort of survival has it been? And for how long? The reign of Celestine lasted less than a year. After it was over, Boniface, the old sorcerer, spirited Celestine away to the fortress of Fumone, “for his own good,” to prevent schismatic squabbles, where, surrounded by six knights and thirty men-at-arms, he was soon to die—probably, as has often been conjectured, at the hands of one of Boniface’s knights. Francis, having suffered the stigmata, having become a folk hero, was, like Celestine, dutifully cononized by the Church. But two centuries or so after his death, a Borgia sat on the throne in the Vatican, the Inquisition of Torquemada was opening its courts in Spain, proscribing, among others, many of the wandering friars of the order Francis himself had established, and a materialism more tenacious than any Francis could have dreamed of was spreading throughout every town and hamlet in Europe.

These tales of holiness must really be the most wistful tales in the world, tales of truth in the face of hypocrisy, of fraternal impartiality in the face of arrogance, tales that would seem simply Sunday school Kitsch, outrageously de trop in the workaday world of compromise and action did they not seem so eerie, so ecumenical, so haunted, in fact, by the words of Christ to the apostles at the Last Supper: “One of you will betray me.” For as Boniface keeps repeating: Power is the point, the only point, the rest is just talk. And of course he is right. At the end of these tales the world—the way of the world—is always left exactly where it was before Jesus, before Francis, before Celestine, the world of the winners and the losers.

The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind….
I see, as in a map, the end of all.

In John G. Avildsen’s Save the Tiger, sociological sob stuff about the “way we live now,” a lachrymose Jack Lemmon, portraying a harassed entrepreneur whose moral values have sunk lower and lower as his income has risen higher and higher, must surely be meant to represent one of the sons of the old folks in Florida condominiums who sit around on sun decks and palm off on bored friends the colored snaps of their children’s tennis courts mit pool, the nine cars in the driveway, and the shvartze butler carrying in the martinis on the silver tray.

Watching Jack Lemmon, the green bay tree of Beverly Hills having eaten away his soul, shed crocodile tears as he reminisces over Lou Gehrig and Leo Durocher or plaintively attends to the tapes of favorite Benny Goodman recordings (the purity of his past), I could not help remembering an old Barbara Stanwyck movie I had seen recently on the tube. It is the redemptive tale of a city slicker who washes away her sleazy urban habits after a fortuitous encounter with the pieties of small town American life. The lyric high point of this 1940 film occurs when Fred MacMurray, his mother, his maiden aunt, and the handyman gather around the old upright in the parlor after dinner and sing “The End of a Perfect Day,” Stanwyck’s eyes glistening before she joins in.

The treacle revival is going great guns. People are once again streaming in from the suburbs, once again daring a night in Manhattan just to catch Debbie and her blue gown, Charles Boyer as the High Lama, Celeste Holm as Tom Sawyer’s aunt, and (until recently at the Music Hall) the signers of the Declaration of Independence, acting cuter than a barrel full of monkeys, in 1776. In the phony moral quagmire of Save the Tiger Jack Lemmon tugs at our heart strings while never letting go of his purse strings; he is the Jolly Green Giant as tragic hero, the business man with a conscience who learns to overcome it, a gran rifiuto of sorts, appropriate to our own era of Watergate and ITT and President Nixon’s four and a half billion dollar increase in the defense budget now that “peace with honor” has been restored.

But it’s no use complaining, for money’s rant is on.
He that’s mounting up must on his neighbor mount,
And we and all the Muses are things of no account.

  1. 1

    Copyright © 1973 by Famous Music Corporation.

  2. 2

    But to be fair to Visconti, whom I admire…. While he unfathomably neglects the one worthy act of Ludwig’s reign—the fostering of the completion of the Ring cycle and the construction of the theater at Bayreuth—he does offer the supernal suggestion that the myths of Catholicism and the myths of Wagner (for example, Lohengrin, the virgin knight, seeking “the woman who would not call for explanations or defense, but who should love him with an unconditioned love”) have, taken together, warped the impressionable young monarch’s tender soul. The suggestion is there as a gleam in Visconti’s eye whenever he depicts Ludwig’s tortured relations with the pastor at his court or with the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Another gleam, however, far deeper, shines forth as Visconti responds to Ludwig’s other affairs, other worlds, and it is in these murky libidinal realms that Visconti, catching no doubt a glimpse of himself, has, I’m afraid, gone completely gaga.

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