Jeremy Irons’ barrel-aged tones narrate this documentary (just shy of an hour long) about a 13th-century bromance: the meeting in 1219 between Francis of Assisi and Ayyubid sultan Al-Kamil. The pacifist friar and Saladin’s erudite nephew, during a prolonged fag break from the siege of Damietta in the Fifth Crusade, compared notes on religion and found much to like.
Director Alexander Kronemer sets the stage confidently, fleshing out the future monk’s errant youth and early papal machinations in the Holy Land in handsome reconstructions that perhaps cover for the film’s achilles heel: the lack of documentation about what exactly happened during the powwow. Only a few contemporary sources exist, none of them Arab; most details are drawn from later Franciscan biographies.
Francis offered to walk through fire to settle it for the Gospels, but Al-Kamil refused. The effects of their contact, though, lingered. The documentary implies it encouraged clemency from the sultan when the Christian army, marching on Cairo, became bogged down in the Nile delta. And it reckons there is an audible Muslim influence in Francis’s prayer enumerating God’s attributes, which is similar to Islam’s 99 names.
This is all the better to carry an interfaith message with obvious resonance post-9/11. Conspicuous among the raft of historical commentators is the a neuroscientist who supplies insights about religious and ethnic intolerance activating deep reptilian structures in the brain – a biological perspective with intriguing possibilities for a universal theory of radicalisation.
• The Sultan and the Saint is released in the UK on 11 October.