Because of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”

Posted by Webster 
A column today at The Catholic Thing about Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” calls it “the best TV miniseries ever.” You can debate that—easily—but here’s something I’ll take to the bank: “Jesus of Nazareth” is not even Zeffirelli’s best religious work. That would be “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” his 1972 film about Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi.

I have seen “BSSM” about two dozen times, although I have to admit there were mitigating circumstances.

In 1976, I was one of a group that bought a movie theater in Beverly, Massachusetts. It’s still in operation today, although I am no longer actively involved. Our strategy was to show double features of “Films Worth Seeing More than Once”—back in the long-forgotten days before widespread cable use, videos, and DVDs. With another fellow, I was responsible for booking the film program and, being two young romantics, we thought it might be nice to begin by showing Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1968). Yes, that was the year I turned 17.

But what movie to pair with “R&J;”? We cast around and finally landed on a title neither of us had ever heard of, and only because it was also by Zeffirelli and, from the publicity, seemed to be a compatible romance. Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker? Probably another pair of performers like Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey of “R&J;” playing young people in love—and to music by hippie folk minstrel Donovan! Sure, book it, why not?

And so, because the “feature” always played last in our double billings, our theatrical adventure on Cabot Street began officially with a film about young people in love—with God, with Jesus Christ. Lo and behold, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” became one of our most popular offerings, long after we had stopped playing “Romeo & Juliet”!

It’s not stretching things to say that, as I watched this film over and again—sometimes from the back of the auditorium where I welcomed guests, sometimes from the front row where my daughters Martha and Marian sat for every film, sometimes from the projection booth where my license hung framed on the wall—a calling to the Catholic faith was repeated over and over.

I think what stunned me about the film was that it captured the blessedness of poverty, as lived by Francis and, to a lesser extent in the film, Clare. The clip below is one of my favorite scenes, showing Francis, after the Christ of San Damiano has told him to “rebuild my church,” together with one of his old carousing buddies, Bernardo, on the cusp of his own conversion. The characters who are shown helping—some dimwitted, some handicapped, some aged beyond any apparent usefulness—are worth the price of admission. And the eyes of Francis (Faulkner) as he turns to greet Bernardo? It would be contradictory and also completely sincere to say that, every time I watched the film, I coveted that gaze.

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  • Amy Welborn

    Oh my. I've written before about how this is one of my guilty pleasures – lots of inaccuracies about Francis, very reflective of its own period, but HUGELY influential on me when I was in college – a bunch of us from the Catholic Campus Ministry went to see it one night when it was showing at the Student Center (can you imagine? At the Student Center of a major state university?) and came out as a group singing, "If you want to your dream to be, build it sure and sloooowly"…and just…inspired. Inspired and stunned by the eyes of Christ gazing at Francis from the cross. As idiosyncratic as it is, I think that the element of self-sacrifice and single-minded love of Christ and what happens when you allow that Love to live within and that Voice to rule you does shine through. And the scene you have clipped is one of my favorites, too. See it not as history so much as a meditation. Maybe it's time to watch it again.

  • Webster Bull

    Oh Amy, Thank you! The moment I pressed "Publish" I thought, Webster you've finally gone off the deep end. People are going to think you really are nuts. But I WAS off the deep end in 1976!! And thank God for that.

  • Maria

    I am a little younger than you , Webster. But I too saw it several times . It left a deep imprint. I linked to something on McNamara's site today. Kierkegard was quoted: " We live our lives forward and understand them backwards" –I think that is it. The seeds were planted for you, weren't they? Way back.

  • Webster Bull

    P82, Yes. This whole YIMCatholic exercise illustrates Kierkegaard, both the backward and the forward: Backward to understand how I became a Catholic, and forward through every day of my life contemplating why being Catholic illuminates everything, from serving at a funeral to reading a book to listening to music to chatting with friends on line!

  • James

    Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a terrific film. I first saw it at a fabulous theatre – the Cabot Cinema! Another great film I first saw at your theatre was"Meetings with Remarkable Men". Thanks for bringing this great venue to the Northshore and helping to enrich our cultural lives.

  • Maria

    Keep up the good fight. Day by day. Stone by stone.

  • Shannon

    Mid-70s, Zefferelli's two films were popular in church basements. I went with a friend. Sometimes we saw them in the order Z made them, sometimes in chronological order (there's a Franciscan in R&J;, right??). In 1980, I spent a summer in Assisi and one of the great delights of the summer was watching the Italian version of the movie, shown on the side of a building near the main square. People talked during the movie, mostly poking each other and pointing out how much older the characters in the crowd looked. It was fun running into shopkeepers who'd been in the movie; I'd seen them so often onscreen, I thought I knew them!

  • Pam (Rose) Beeler

    Webster, thank you so much for this post!! I teach theology and, well, BSSM is considered fairly lowbrow in most academic circles . . . admittedly with some reason. But, no single movie has more impacted my own personal faith. Whenever I feel like God might be asking just a bit too much of me, I always picture the seen when Francis is in the snow barefoot, laying stone upon stone, rebuilding the church. Yes, it's a product of its time . . . but, aren't we all, my friend, aren't we all?

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks for these comments! Pam, don't we have to risk appearing lowbrow for our faith? I'm sure you would say yes. Shannon, your story reminds me of the wonderful scene in "Cinema Paradiso" where the film is projected on a building. I must return to Assisi! Last there in 1971. And James . . . my friend . . . you are a SPY, to be treated with kid gloves and a smile.

  • Grace

    I am sorry to add a negative note here, but I thought BSSM was horrible. When I saw it when it came out, I thought it was boring. I was irreligious at the time, and it didn't prompt me in any way to seek God. Fast forward to when I have converted to Catholicism and show it to my non-Catholic teenage son. He made a disparaging remark about the actor/main character about 10 minutes in and got up and left the room. And I couldn't blame him one bit. The film makes St. Francis out to be an effeminate (if not homosexual) man. It does the saint– and the Catholic Church– a great disservice because the real Saint Francis was very tough-minded.

  • Webster Bull

    Grace, Thanks for your honest comment. I guess this shows that the Holy Spirit works on each of us in different ways. There is no single path for the Journey Home.

  • Enbrethiliel

    +JMJ+Well, I really liked the movie–despite being musically affronted, when I saw it in the mid-noughties, to hear Donovan in the soundtrack! =P Yet now I have a strange urge to learn to play his Brother Son Sister Moon ditty on my guitar . . . Hmmmmmm.I remember thinking it was a very simply told tale (for all the lushness of the art direction and cinematography): St. Francis as a child would see him. Brother Son Sister Moon is certainly not as polished or sophisticated as Romeo and Juliet–BUT I think Zeffirelli intended it that way. He believed that when he was in hospital for something, St. Francis visited him in a dream and inspired him to leave his life of sin. It may be that his love for this great saint was very childlike and simple.(Note: if St. Francis and his friends seem effeminate here, that is probably because Zeffirelli was a practicing homosexual before his return to the Church. That he had repented of that didn't mean traces of it still lingered in his artistic vision.)

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, E–It's nice to know that a considerably younger Catholic enjoyed the film. Thanks for the insights into Zeffirelli: his dream and his one-time homosexual activity. I have been mulling Grace's comment about the effeminacy of G. Faulkner as Francesco and now want to go back and see how the movie plays for me today. I'm afraid we watch everything through cultural stereotypes and our own private lenses, and I frankly am not sure that I wouldn't still appreciate the performance. (Sorry for the double negative; I mean, I might still love it.) Yes, the performance, like the film, was mad and excessive, but so was Francis. However, I know that in the late 1970s I thought "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was a sort of cinematic Second Coming of the Best Kind, and when I showed it to my young daughters in the 1990s they thought it was B-O-R-I-N-G, Dad!

  • patricia

    I have been reading your blog for several months and I just want to thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. I went on a Pilgrimage with a group from the Ft. Worth Diocese led by our Bishop and was blessed to be able to attend mass at St. Francis Basilica which was said by our Bishop. We had the opportunity to attend mass at several basilicas including St. Peter's but I was deeply moved in Assisi. I have been trying to discern God's will for my life and was able to say a prayer before the San Damiano Crucifix, the cross that St. Francis prayed before, when God spoke to him and told him to rebuild His church. It seems God keeps telling me to wait and to trust in Him, so that is what I am doing for now. God speaks to each of us in many ways and one way He has spoken to me is through the comments and insight you have shared. I thank God for your being a good and faithful servant by sharing your wisdom. May God continue to bless you and your ministry.

  • Webster Bull

    Dear Patricia, I am touched by your thoughtful comment. I started this blog as a "love letter" to my wife and daughters and certainly not as a "ministry," but it has taught me (again) that the Lord works in mysterious ways. That it has been valuable to you is just another little miracle! I am inspired by your prayers. I spend an hour most weekdays at Eucharistic Adoration, and I can think of no better way of spending this hour than by asking God what he wants from me, as you (and Francis) did in Assisi. May God bless your journey!

  • Daily Grace

    Being a "Francis" lover, I wacthed it many times and loved it every time! I think it's time to watch it again…It's always inspirational.Great post!

  • Daily Grace

    I must add, this blog is one of my absolute favorites!Thank you!

  • Webster Bull

    Dear DG, Thanks so much. If I could spend all day blogging, I probably would. Frank too. But then we have families too . . . :-)

  • patricia

    I,also, go to Eucharistic Adoration each Friday (the only day our parish has Exposition). To be able to spend time before His living, breathing, presence is one of the true blessings we have as Catholics. I like to journal ,there, before Him. He blesses me in countless ways when I spend that hour with Him and I cannot thank Him enough. I want you to know that I will say a prayer for you and yours when I go there this week. Again, God bless you and your ministry.

  • Frank

    I'll have to see if I can find a copy of this movie at the library. Or maybe we (family and I) can watch it all on You Tube?!

  • Frank

    I watched this last night with the kids (VHS from the public library) and really enjoyed it. Alec Guinness at the end was a pleasant surprise!

  • Anne

    I come to your blog by way of Daily Grace. My comment to her is the same to you, I had never heard of this movie until my spiritual director told me about it a few months ago. He quoted the lyrics to your video to me and I was greatly inspired. I went out and bought the movie and my family and I have enjoyed it tremendously! My husband is a huge Donovan fan so I think that helped his enjoyment level. It's a classic story told so well! I 'm sure I'll be back to visit this blog some more! Thanks for writing it!

  • Jackie

    Thank you goes out to Daily Grace for linking me to your blog. I created a link here [if it doesn't show up in the linky thing lol it should ] : share your catholic faith.

  • King of Fat

    I'm another fan. It didn't convert me though reading "the little flowers of St Francis" had a huge affect on me when I was 13. But it did confirm me as a hippy. Myself and buddy are such fans of this film that we are saying a novena for Franco zeffirelli. I've set up a blog and facebook page for it at do join us if you feel inspired to do so.

  • Pamela Richards

    I’m in the process of repeatedly re-watching BSSM as a secondary source of material in writing about my friend Rich Mullins, who was nuts about this film. He couldn’t stand the Donovan soundtrack, though. He wanted nothing more than to do one of his own. I’m currently writing a short book about Mullins, St. Francis, Jesus and the Beatitudes called Walk Through the Valley.