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William A. Smith
- Publié sur Amazon.com
In the last phase of Roberto Rossellini's career, he focused his efforts on a series of low-budget films for Italian and French television dealing with historical subjects. They form a rather Utopian program of using television as a way of increasing the historical understanding of the average viewer. Criterion has done us a considerable service in making four of them--the three in this set and The Taking Of Power by Louis XIV--readily available.
One of the things we rarely think about in looking at films not set in the present is how the film represents the reality of a historical setting. This goes well beyond such considerations as art direction and costume. The way that we look at the world has changed dramatically over time. Even for so recent a period as Victorian England, there are numerous differences in world-view that must color the way we look at things in order to get an informed insight. How much more difficult, then, to recreate, not just the look, but also the mindset, of Imperial Rome, or Renaissance Italy, or 17th century France?
Various filmmakers take various routes, from ignoring the problem (the most common) to radical attempts to recreate the physical details of the setting, as Jean-Jacques Annaud did in The Name Of the Rose--on the assumption that getting the setting right will re-create the mental landscape as well. Within the limits of his budget, Rossellini did much the same thing--but he took things considerably further. These films are not dramatic in a conventional sense--if you are expecting something like the four-part series on The Medici in the Empires series, you will be sorely disappointed.
Instead, Rossellini has two radical steps. First, much of the dialogue is taken directly from the writings of the participants. Second, Rossellini shows us, without comment, many historically accurate but unsettling details of daily life--from the 17th century version of an indoor toilet in the Pascal film to the extreme way in which Florentine guilds dealt with those who stole guild secrets in the Medici films. It's a strategy of showing, rather than telling--in the later Cartesius and Blaise Pascal, he abandons the occasional patches of exposition that you will find in the Medici film and in the Louis XIV film.
These are films of great subtlety, and very little overt affect, although they are not without emotional impact. Some might dismiss them as historical pageants, rather than dramas, which would be an error. The drama lies in the play of ideas--since there are, above all, films about ideas.
The longest of the three is The Age of the Medici. It's also the most accessible--a large cast of characters, a great deal of incident, and above all a really remarkable evocation of the optimistic spirit of the Florentine Renaissance, particularly in the episode dealing with Alberti. It deals with a very wide range of subjects--politics, both temporal and ecclesiastical; the revival of Platonism; Renaissance banking and trade; architecture and the rebuilding of Rome. The only slight downside is that a bit of a background in the period will make the film far easier to digest. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a paradox in Rossellini's method--he has an educational program, but the films offer their richest reward to those who already know somethng about the subjects.
Cartesius and Blaise Pascal move us to 17th century France, and two of the great philosophers and mathematicians of the period, of contrasting temperaments. (Criterion's labeling is a bit misleading here--neither Descartes nor Pascal are really Enlightenment figures, although they point in that direction.) Taken in sequence, they offer an extended meditation on key problems of philosophy and science--the roles of faith and reason; tradition versus experimentation; building up from first principles and reason (Descartes) versus building down from the infinite mysteries of faith (Pascal). These films are striking for the extended excerpts from Pascal's and Descartes' writings; in the first case, the script quotes liberally fro the Pensees and includes what appears to be the full text of Pascal's Memorial--the record of his mystical conversion experience.
One particular image that recurs, time and again, in these films is awakening. A character will walk into a room and open a pair of shutters, and light will flood the scene--usually as a preparation for awaking a character from sleep. How tempting it is to see this as a metaphor for Rossellini's project--throwing light on key aspects of our history. These are films that will not be to everything's taste; they demand careful attention. But they are remarkably rewarding. A very high recommendation indeed.
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At last! Here are the three greatest achievements from the final phase of Rossellini's career in good transfers and - where appropriate - with a choice of different languages on the soundtrack, in addition to the subtitles. Previous (overpriced) VHS issues of two of them were visually poor, and offered only the Italian soundtrack version of "Blaise Pascal" (the French is better) and the English version of "Age of the Medici" (the Italian is MUCH better!); and an earlier DVD issue of the third, "Cartesius", was excellent but not easily available.
That Rossellini spent his last decade or so making what might be called docu-dramas for TV is due to the tragically widespread misinterpretation and undervaluing of his work in the two decades before. There were always admirers - especially in France in the fifties - who understood and revered his work, but so many others failed to appreciate its subtlety, originality, beauty and complexity of attitude that the director lost faith in fictional cinema. The documentary aspect that had long been a feature of his work took over, and he set about creating a body of TV films that would focus on key moments in History. The three multi-episode series "Iron Age" (1964), "Man's struggle for survival" (1967) and "Acts of the Apostles" (1968) have rarely been shown outside of Italy - though screenings of a gratingly dubbed, awkwardly truncated print of "Acts of the Apostles" in London in 2007 revealed that it contains some great moments. But "The rise to power of Louis XIV" (1966) was released theatrically abroad and, despite occasional lapses into stolidity, the intelligence, lucidity and elegance of most of its scenes impressed many viewers. However, apart from a handful of effective sequences, "Socrates" (1970) and "Augustine of Hippo" (1972) seem disappointing, at times graceless, even clumsy.
Everything appears to click, though, for "Blaise Pascal" and "Age of the Medici" (both 1972) and "Cartesius" (ie. "Descartes" 1974), and they are complex, near-flawless masterpieces. The long takes, the refined but insidious camera movements and the placing of actors in the context of images that vivify both the splendour and the squalor of their historical periods are a wonder to behold. If "Blaise Pascal" is the most moving of the three, it is also dark and chilling: in Pierre Arditi's affecting performance the French philosopher comes across as a sympathetic but quietly anguished figure, using his superior intellect largely for the good of others but unable to emulate his sister Jacqueline's devout religious faith, or to come to terms with the suffering he sees all around. Though bleak, the final deathbed sequence, with its eerily graceful tracks and ominously slow zooms, is sublimely great art that cannot be reduced to a single, simple meaning. By contrast, "Cartesius" glows with the light of enquiry and discovery: time and again a servant enters a darkened bedroom where Descartes is sleeping late, throws open the curtains, and daylight floods in, so that the erudite clutter of the restless thinker's environment is revealed with Vermeer-like radiance.
"Age of the Medici" is chiefly concerned with the devious social, political and economic forces at work in 15th century Florence (and other Italian city states), but the human focal point, at first Cosimo de Medici (altruistic but ruthless) gradually becomes Leon Battista Alberti, portrayed as spokesman for the scientific and artistic underpinning of Renaissance humanism. Rossellini displays a franker admiration for Alberti than for any other historical figure in his films, which could be seen as a loss of "objectivity" - but it gives the final section of "Age of the Medici" a wonderful sense of uplift.