Director Roberto Rossellini and scriptwriter Federico Fellini based their film on the 14th-century book I fioretti di san Francesco. It is less an actual biography of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) than a series of parables on virtue. The nine vignettes depict short scenes from the life of St. Francis and his disciples, and conclude with a moral. Each encounter with a non-believer, leper, or beggar serves to illustrate Christian values. The high point comes in chapter eight, when Francis teaches that true happiness is to be found in suffering for the love of Christ.
The role of St. Francis is performed by Brother Nazario Gerardi, whose name doesn’t even appear in the credits. The disciples are also played by real-life members of the Franciscan Order. The only professional actor in the cast is Aldo Fabrizi, in the role of the tyrant Nicolaio. Now, 70 years after the film was made, Fabrizi’s mannered theatricality seems affected, while the monk’s performances come across as utterly natural.