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Issue Date:  July 28, 2006

Superhero and humble spirit

'Superman Returns' dazzles with effects; Rossellini film portrays St. Francis


The nicest thing I can report on Superman Returns is that someone took two dozen handicapped kids to the performance I saw, and they loved it, cheering spontaneously at the end. I don’t think they were judging the acting or the coherence of the story, or believed Superman was going to cure them. They were simply enthralled with the spectacular images of the hero’s preternatural gifts. They may not even have seen Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman,” with the late Christopher Reeve in cape and tights, and a cast including Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman -- probably an advantage, since Mr. Reeve was handsomer and funnier than this film’s Superman (Brandon Routh).

Directed by Bryan Singer, “Superman Returns” has our hero returning to the family homestead, the planet Krypton, by fireball, visiting his mother (Eva Marie Saint) and remembering his father (Marlon Brando) offering a last bit of advice: “You will see my life through your eyes.” Then he whizzes back to Metropolis as the diffident Clark Kent and is given back his old job on the Daily Planet by editor Perry White (Frank Langella).

Somewhat disconcerting is the Pulitzer Prize that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has just won for her article, “Why the world doesn’t need Superman.” She also seems to have acquired a fiancé, assistant editor Richard White (James Marsden), and a charming young son (Tristan Lake Leabu). Needless to say, Lois doesn’t renew their old romance from “Superman II” and Clark, though still attracted to her, makes no reference to it. Instead, time is taken up with the blustering villainy of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), who has devised an incredible plan to create a new continent -- on which he can sell real estate! -- from crystals stolen from Superman’s arctic hideout. Luthor dresses nattily, but his attempts to carry out this plan, which he hardly seems to believe in himself, at least give the director the chance to put Superman in almost fatal danger.

Even NCR readers will be impressed with the special effects: planets exploding in space, a new planet rising in the ocean, and Superman’s heroic rescues. But many will be more amused by the film’s theology implied in Superman’s response to Lois’s article: “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying out for one.” On the other hand, the movie borrows intelligently from John Williams’ original theme music and allows Parker Posey a few laughs as Luthor’s ridiculous girlfriend.

When going to the movies, however, what we’re looking for is a coherent narrative and acting that suggests some degree of reflection. All that can be said for sure here is that this is the most expensive Superman movie ever made. An international moviegoer, however, aware that Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry in India, has made its own super-hero movies, might comment, “At least an Indian Superman can sing and dance.”

Since blockbuster season also means a time when there are fewer movies you want to see, I am happy to give space to a 1950 production of Roberto Rossellini, The Flowers of St. Francis (“Francesco, giullare di Dio,” or “God’s Jester”), now being presented at selective art film houses and available on DVD. When first released, it was hardly shown in the United States due to the director’s scandalous marriage to Ingrid Bergman. Scholars will probably stay with Mr. Rossellini’s more well-known works, “Open City,” “Paisan,” and “General della Rovere” as the high points of his career, but every NCR reader should try to become familiar with “Flowers,” probably the finest of all the movies made about Francis of Assisi.

“The Flowers of St. Francis” is based on anecdotes about the saint that were gathered after his death and can be found in a charming book by that name widely available in paperback. Lazy critics identified Mr. Rossellini with neo-realism after the success of “Open City,” but the director soon showed greater interest in the psychological workings of his characters. Though never a practicing Catholic, he also exhibited a consistent sympathy for deeply Christian values. Except for Aldo Fabrizi’s portrayal of Nicolaio the Tyrant, Mr. Rossellini chose real monks as his actors, with Nazario Gerardi as Francis and Severino Pisacane as Brother Ginepro, a naive man who desperately wants to preach but is relegated to cooking.

The gorgeous cinematography, even in black and white, evokes the great paintings of Francis’ time. The emphasis is on Francis’ early ministry, offering his humility as representative of the spirit of the order. Mr. Rossellini is not making a biography and is unafraid of showing the sometimes comic naiveté of the friars. The opening episode shows them trampling through mud and enduring a cold rain as Francis reminds them to thank God for these gifts. Viewers expecting to see Francis dominate the movie may be disappointed, although a brief, wordless scene in which he meets a leper in the woods is apt to remain in their imagination.

There are 10 episodes, all taken from the legendary “Little Flowers,” a collection of beloved stories about St. Francis. At the end, the brothers, abandoning the church they had built at Rivotorto in order to go off to preach, invite neighboring peasants to make it their home. The last episode deals with the legend of Brother Ginepro; he is finally allowed to preach, but first he is almost murdered by the Tyrant. The latter’s shock at discovering Brother Ginepro’s unlimited willingness to practice nonviolence conveys a sense of awe that constitutes a great moment in world cinema.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR ’s regular film reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2006

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