For those who haven’t been schooled in the roster of Catholic saints, Assisi boasts just one household name, the oft-cited, world-famous Francis. In her latest portrait of a real-life woman, after Nico, 1988and Miss Marx, filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli invites us to consider another saint from that Italian town, Clare (Chiara in Italian). She was Francis’ follower, friend, and, in this telling, his occasional foe, taking his questioning of convention a crucial step further, in the name of female autonomy. She’s played by Margherita Mazzucco (Elena Greco in the series My Brilliant Friend) with compassion, ferocious intelligence and a bit of song-and-dance pizazz, 13th century style. Because yes, Chiara is a musical of sorts.
Even as Nicchiarelli, her design team and DP Crystel Fournier evoke an ancient world, this earnest yet playful take on Clare, the first woman to author a set of monastic guidelines, is not strictly devoted to realism. The movie is fourth-wall-breaking but not quite meta, its strong-willed protagonist sometimes gazing straight into the camera. This approach is likely to pull you out of the story, or at least keep you at a distance; the same goes for the spontaneous choral numbers and the dance sequences in fields. But the music by Anonima Frottolistian ensemble devoted to early music, is so good (think gently pop-tinged Gregorian chant) that it provides a winning diversion when the narrative thrust feels wanting.
The Bottom Line
A fitfully engrossing mix of earnest and playful.
Beyond the singing, there’s undoubtedly more talking in Chiara than took place during the title character’s life of devotion. Mazzucco’s gimlet-eyed Clare is 18 when the story opens in 1211 (the film follows 17 years in her life, and let’s just say that everyone ages well, or imperceptibly — a nice respite from standard and often strained movie patterns for depicting the passing decades ). In the middle of the night, with her friend Pacifica (Flaminia Mancin), she leaves her well-to-do family to join Francis (Andrea Carpenzano) and his band of friars. Valentino Campitelli and Luigi Vestuto make impressions as two of his most genial followers.
Played as a mild hippie with sad eyes and barely a suggestion of the patron saint of Italy he would become, Francis has shaken up the Church with his radical devotion to the poor and needy and his rejection of material comfort. But still he subscribes to paternalistic attitudes towards women as beings who need protection and can’t take on the same work as his friars. And so after hearing their vows of poverty and chastity and chopping off their long hair, he sends Clare and Pacifica to a convent, precisely where Clare doesn’t want to go. As she predicts, the young women are instantly turned into scullery maids by the humorless abbess.
Their stint among the nuns is brief, though, and it isn’t long before an order of women has congregated around Clare, who inspires awe and love with her spiritual gifts and her dedication to the teachings of Christ. The first sign of her extraordinary abilities pits her against a sadistic uncle. Nicchiarelli deftly stages the suspenseful sequence for maximum effect.
Among Clare’s newfound sisters are Cristiana (Carlotta Natoli), who with her experience as a mother relates strongly to stories about Mary and Jesus, and the gray-haired Balvina (Paola Tiziana Cruciani), whose health issues will present a particular challenge and opportunity for Clare. Her healing gifts can be focused and purposeful, but sometimes stuff just happens, and it surprises her as much as anyone. “Did I do another miracle?” she asks after escaping an accident that would have been fatal to most any mere mortal.
Before long, Clare becomes “the talk of Rome” with her entreaties to the Vatican to recognize her order on the same grounds as that of Francis. Papal emissary Cardinal Ugolino (a terrific Luigi Lo Cascio) insists that “no woman can set an example for anyone.” He ups the comic friction when he returns, having been promoted to pope (he’s Gregory IX) and done up in spring-blue regalia — an eye-catching disruption of the film’s subdued palette of gray, brown and taupe, with green grass offering the only other brightness.
In this Middle Ages musical drama, Nicchiarelli is interested in the unexpected details, as when the miracle of an earthenware vase full of olive oil sparks a lively dinner-table conversation about food, as if we’re peering in on some medieval Cooking Channel segment. . Francis too gets his food-centric moment, enjoying a local delicacy during his travels in the Holy Land.
Nicchiarelli’s vision of the female clergy is as chaste as Paul Verhoeven’s 17th century nun-apalooza. Benedetta is erotic, but still the filmmaker has fun with tone and upends expectations. Chiara wanders, in ways that can be rewarding or confounding, but it takes chances. This festival season, still young, has already unveiled a number of memorable portraits of rebellious women who question power structures. In Mazzucco’s fuss-free, laser-focused performance, we see that it takes a tough cookie to be a saint.
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