Venice 2022 review: Chiara (Susanna Nicchiarelli)

“Susanna Nicchiarelli’s medieval Chiara is an unusual beast, a highly religious and devoted biopic with gorgeous Middle Ages musical interludes, yet also one with very little conflict or arc.”

Mention Assisi, and most people will immediately think of this Central Italian city’s most famous son: Francis, the 13th century saint who could talk to animals. Fewer people will know of his female contemporary, friend, and fellow Assisian: Chiara, or Clare Offreduccio. After learning about Francis’ vow of poverty, this daughter of an aristocratic family decided she wanted to live by his example and started her own order, ever since known as the Order of Poor Ladies. After a life dedicated to Christ in which she allegedly performed several miracles and was also the first woman to write a set of monastic guidelines, Clare of Assisi was sanctified only two years after her death in 1253. Shining a light on Clare’s younger years from the moment she gave up her earthly belongings, Susanna Nicchiarelli’s medieval Chiara is an unusual beast, a highly religious and devoted biopic with gorgeous Middle Ages musical interludes, yet also one with very little conflict or arc.

The year is 1211 and Clare (Margherita Mazzucco) and her friend Pacifica (Flaminia Mancin) are running away from home to join young Francis (Andrea Carpenzano) and his brothers, much to the dismay of their parents. After cutting her hair and vowing a life of poverty and chastity, Clare is soon worshipped as an example by other women, who flock to the convent she calls her residence. This includes her younger sister, and when their uncle shows up to take the younger girl back home a miracle occurs: Clare’s sister becomes so heavy that her uncle’s men can’t carry her away. Clare and the other nuns start their own order in which there is no place for hierarchy, although the others blindly follow what Clare says and seek her advice whenever needed. Such a strong woman inevitably invites the scrutiny of Rome, and it doesn’t take long for the papacy to declare that women are not allowed the ‘privilege of poverty’, nor to travel abroad like Francis and his brothers, to the chagrin of Clare.

Several miracles happen in and around the convent: a vase is magically filled to the brim with olive oil, one of the older sisters is miraculously healed, and when a heavy wooden panel falls on top of Clare she emerges from underneath unscathed. “Did I do another miracle?” she incredulously asks the others. The order also do their share of good work in the area, among other things uplifting the spirits of the local populace when the plague hits. Yet Clare’s strife with Rome continues, as the Holy Seat remains disturbed by Clare’s unconventional methods and strength as a woman.

Nicchiarelli’s Chiara rather faithfully follows the known events in the life of Clare of Assisi from 1211 to 1228. In tone staying close to the texts that the screenplay is based on, the film’s narrative is stripped of any melodramatic content. Clare’s life is not necessarily uneventful, but large parts of Chiara are spent discussing monastic life, biblical passages, and living in accordance to the Lord’s guidance. Clare is portrayed as a saintly young woman who rarely raises her voice and is pure of heart and soul. For lack of a better word, this makes Chiara feel somewhat boring and stretched out, even at a moderate runtime of an hour and 45 minutes. Nicchiarelli spices up the film with musical interludes, much like her previous film Miss Marx. Whereas in that film the songs were decidedly anachronistic, in Chiara the works are appropriately medieval, heightening the overall monastic and religious tone. It makes Chiara an odd duck, a film that centres around a feminist icon without much spirit, and a film that in no way connects to our current times. Chiara is no doubt a strangely charming film, although without much poise and at times dragging its feet. In the absence of a true antagonist, the papacy mainly being an offscreen presence, the film boils down to a string of events in the life of this saint, wherein any adversity is quickly overcome by a miracle or by prayer. Like in Miss Marx, Nicchiarelli in Chiara tries to create an icon, but her Clare is too saintly to make a lasting impression, which is probably why most people know Francis of Assisi, and not Clare.