Original Television Special Documenting the Life of St. Francis of Assisi

Feb 18, 2003 07:37 PM EST

NEW YORK - "Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi," a compelling new interpretation of the life of one of the best known, most loved, and least understood figures in religious history, is set to air on April 13, 2003, Palm Sunday, at 7 PM ET/PT on Hallmark Channel.

The one-hour program was filmed on location in Central Italy (Umbria), and is based on the highly acclaimed 2002 book Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi by best-selling author Donald Spoto. "Reluctant Saint" was produced by Pamela Mason Wagner, who won an Emmy in 2001 for "AMERICAN MASTERS: Finding Lucy," a feature-length documentary on Lucille Ball. Acclaimed actor Liev Schreiber, known for his film roles in "Kate and Leopold" and "The Hurricane," provides the voiceover narration. Robert Sean Leonard, who has starred in the films "Dead Poets Society" and "The Age of Innocence," is the voice of St. Francis.

"Reluctant Saint" is part of a four-hour package of special Palm Sunday programming to be aired on Hallmark Channel. It will be followed by "Touched by an Angel" at 8 PM ET/PT. The episode guest stars the popular Gaither family and features Delta Burke, John Schneider, Randy Travis, Rue McClanahan, and the late Nell Carter. At 9 PM ET/PT, Hallmark will broadcast the world premiere movie "Loves Comes Softly," written and directed by Michael Landon, Jr. and co-produced by Hallmark Entertainment, Inc. and Faith & Values Media. The movie is based on the first installment of what is a very successful franchise of eight Love Comes Softly books for writer Janette Oke. In her genre, Ms. Oke is second only to Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame in popularity.

Often referred to as "the universal saint" for his appeal to people of many faith traditions, Francis of Assisi has at times been oversimplified, portrayed as a man more interested in nature than in leading a religious revival among his contemporaries, according to Fr. James Gardiner, SA, a Franciscan friar who is director of Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in New York. However, as the program dramatically reveals, Francis was a very complex individual who demonstrated the ideal of a life dedicated to following the Christian gospel rather than to acquiring material possessions.

"Most people have never heard the story of how Francis the person became Francis the saint," said Donald Spoto, who is among the many expert writers, academics and theologians who appear in the program. "He was actually born into a wealthy merchant family in 12th Century Italy, spending the first 20 years of his life as the leader of the pleasure-seeking youth of his town. In many ways his life began in an environment not terribly different from what surrounds today's wealthy, fun-loving American young people."

However, beginning with his capture and confinement as a prisoner of war by neighboring city-state Perugia while in his early 20s, Francis began a spiritual transformation that lead him to renounce his inheritance and all the pleasures the world had to offer. By the end of his life, Francis had arrived at a vision of peace and human fulfillment that has inspired countless millions of followers in the centuries since his death.

The filmed version of "Reluctant Saint" represents an important milestone for documentary filmmaking and for Faith & Values Media, according to Edward J. Murray, the organization's president and chief executive officer. Producer Pamela Mason Wagner added, "We wanted to do something visually that would break new ground in recreating history; we tried to use the full palette of colors, textures and settings available to us in Umbria today, while keeping the audience firmly rooted in the 12th century." Actors in period dress to recreate without dialogue scenes from Francis' life. The voices of experts commenting, along with Francis' own words spoken by actor Robert Sean Leonard, help bring the story to life.

"Whether it was traveling to the frontlines of the Crusades in the Mideast to preach peace in the Muslim world, or developing a life of spiritual growth through self-denial, Francis was a man who spent his life trying to reconcile the differences that separate us all," stated Murray of Faith & Values Media. "We believe his message is an especially timely one this Easter, given the religious and political turmoil we are currently experiencing around the world."

"Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi" is a production of Lightworks Producing Group and West Egg Studios for Faith & Values Media.

By Albert H. Lee
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