Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

28— L'Età del Ferro (1964)

L'Età del Ferro

At the time of India , as we saw, Rossellini was not really very interested in the medium of television, and the episodes broadcast were little more than outtakes from the later theatrical version. By 1964, however, when Rossellini had begun to take television more seriously, he had learned many things. One of them was that the commentary should add something to the images rather than try to replicate them verbally, as it had in the television series on India. In L'età del ferro (The Iron Age), therefore, the director appears on-screen, acting overtly as teacher and serving as a guarantor of the images, as it were, rather than as their competitor.

His goal in this five-part series is nothing less than a comprehensive overview of the entire Iron Age from the time of the Etruscans to the present day. Most of the early segments are devoted to the progressive refinement of iron implements and weapons, as we move from the earliest inhabitants of the Italian peninsula through the Roman era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the eighteenth century, and the Industrial Revolution, finally coming to rest at an iron factory at Piombino during World War II. In the fourth episode, Rossellini boldly and imaginatively transforms his documentary into a fictionalized account of one metalworker's dealings with the Nazis and the Resistance. The final segment examines the present reality and the future promise of our technological society.

Bursting with what is for the most part recently acquired knowledge, the new teacher wants to teach us everything, all at one go. He will learn, as all teachers must, the virtues of pacing and selection. In fact, in the years to come, he will go back over much of this same material to expand and deepen his and our understanding of it. The series is also clearly transitional, for many of its


dramatic strategies are little changed from the string of commercial films that began with General della Rovere in 1959, and bear little relation to the rigorous films to come. Rossellini is clearly grasping for the large popular audience that had eluded him since the glorious days of Open City , for now he has a mission. In the pursuit of this audience, he is not above resorting to the fast cutting he used as far back as La nave bianca (1941). The battle scenes, for example, are exciting in the best conventional sense. The very first scene, in fact, opens with a thrilling boar hunt shot principally in a flurry of close-ups; the scene becomes increasingly frenetic and, when the dogs hang onto the wild boar for all they are worth, very convincing. Yet even here Rossellini seems, as in the films to come, less interested in dramatic verisimilitude, and the characters' dialogue is often openly, even painfully, expository. The fast cutting and high drama of the chase and battle scenes, in other words, are always thematically subordinate to explanation and demonstration, clearly the order of the day.

This atypical desire to entertain through spectacle also accounts for the astonishing inclusion of scenes from earlier films (including Paisan and Abel Gance's Austerlitz ). As he explained to his Spanish interviewers in the early seventies:

It's very important to make the film spectacular because above all you must entertain people. These are films which should be of use not just to intellectuals but to everybody—if they were not it would be pointless to make them. They have to be spectacular and that means spending a lot of money, which you can't do for TV. These are cultural programmes and so they come furtherest down in the television budget. If you try to fight to change this you don't get any films made, and the important thing is to make films. So we took some sections of other films and re-used them in a different context, and in this way we got the spectacular effect for much less.[1]

In many ways, this is a desperate Rossellini speaking here. He is anxious to be successful in the new medium, obviously his last chance. To continue working—and what is life without work?—he knows he will need to be financially successful, or rather, financially inoffensive, spending as little as possible, continuing to amaze backers by how cheaply he can work.

The most important aesthetic effect of this borrowing, beyond pragmatism and economic exigency, is to establish a kind of conscious, fruitful intertextuality. In order to fill the five hours of time, Rossellini borrows freely from Austerlitz for the Napoleonic scenes, from Paisan for the immediate postwar scenes, and from Scipione l'Africano, Luciano Serra, pilota (upon which he had worked), other fiction films, and a certain amount of raw documentary footage. For one thing, this strategy marks a new variety of an old proclivity of the director's—the conscious working against the Hollywood-style slick seamlessness and "professionalism" that David Thomson has so masterfully dissected in his book Overexposures . Individual images now become secondary to Rossellini's larger project of discovering truth: "If you make a film in a very finished way, it may have a certain intellectualistic value, but that's all. What I am trying to do is to search for truth, to get as near to truth as possible. And truth itself is often slipshod and out of focus."[2]


What results from this mélange of documentary footage, older fiction film, on-screen directorial comment, and newly filmed "documentary" and fictional sequences is an intensely self-aware film. If Rossellini is seeking truth, he knows it does not come naturally. A revealing exchange in the Aprà and Ponzi interview is worth quoting in this regard:

Q: What's the relation of this kind of montage to what you talked about in your interview with Bazin?

A: It's not montage in that sense. There are some things I need to have which it would take months and months of work to make—I can find the same thing on the market, so I take it and use it in my own way—by putting my own ideas into it, not in words but in pictures.

Q: Don't you think that even before montage the pictures have a meaning that montage can't completely destroy?

A: They don't. You have to give them it. The pictures in themselves are nothing more than shadows.[3]

What is so fascinating in this exchange is that it is Rossellini who comes across as the avant-garde film theorist, articulating what is essentially a poststructuralist theory of meaning, and one especially close to some of Eisenstein's formulations concerning the relation of individual shots to the montage that, in a sense, constructs their meaning after the fact. For Rossellini—here, at least—these bits and pieces of earlier films are floating signifiers, in other words, unattached to any fixed, "natural" signified, and hence able to be shaped through montage (which Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier has linked with Derridean écriture ) into whatever meaning the filmmaker desires.[4] This is a long way from both neorealist orthodoxy and Rossellini's later notion of the "essential image."

In effect, Rossellini rearranges his unattached signifiers into a new genre, the film essay. "You have to use everything that can make a point firmly and with precision. . . . So I jump from film taken from the archives to re-constructed scenes."[5] These "pieces made for something else" are used as sentences, even as words, in the construction of his new discourse. But the fact that these visual signifiers have not been (and could never be) completely emptied of their original signifieds is made clear in an unintentionally comic moment in the last episode. As the film is touting the productivity of Italian industry, we see many shots of busy factories filled with happy, productive workers. If the viewer looks closely at the empty cartons, however, it becomes clear that what Rossellini is using is stock footage of a General Electric plant in the United States.

The first conceptual high point of the series comes with the introduction of Leon Battista Alberti, the fifteenth-century Florentine architect, scientist, and humanist who, as one of Rossellini's most direct stand-ins, will appear again ten years later, greatly elaborated, in the second and third episodes of The Age of the Medici (1973). Alberti is the perfect manifestation of all that Rossellini has been preaching because, for Alberti, "painting is science." Machines, quickly being developed by advancing technology, fascinate Alberti as much as they do Rossellini, whose camera enthusiastically follows their intricate movements, just as entranced as it was twenty years earlier with the powerful engines of La nave bianca .


In the first two episodes we also witness the beginning of the industrial production of weapons and learn about the bronze casting of cannons (as a little boy urinates on the metal in order to temper it); throughout, the emphasis is on the cannon's simultaneous utility and beauty. The screen is filled with wonderful machines, most of them employed in the manufacture of weapons of destruction, but nowhere does Rossellini bewail the fact that all this progress and creativity is in the service of death. We see the humorous side of it all—men fitted for armor as though they were at the tailor's (a hammer is used instead of a needle and thread), and the fighting of two men so overladen with metal (reminiscent of the tyrant of Francesco ) that they both collapse at the end from overexertion. We also witness what the film calls the "heroic struggle" to invent new ways to make more gunpowder, better rifles, uniform cannonballs—but with never a word of misgiving from the director.

It is at the end of the second episode that the most politically troublesome aspects of the series appear. For Rossellini, the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath seem to have been an unalloyed blessing. He now wants to demystify our notion of progress (a completely positive term for him), which, he contends, seems so miraculous only when its causes are unknown. Thus, he appears near the end of this episode to explain the causes of the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the steam engine, and the incredible development of machinery and production. Paradoxically, however, the massive onslaught of overwhelming statistics serves only to remystify the fantastic, blinding inevitability of everything subsumed in the word progress . Nor in this entire paean is there a single word about the exploited workers who were largely responsible for this outburst of creativity, or about the horrible slum conditions created in England and elsewhere in its wake. At the very beginning of the third episode, Rossellini does introduce the notion of class (appearing completely neutral toward it) and presents a few quick moments of documentary footage of strikes; then, suddenly, we are back into more war footage, and that is all we hear of the workers' struggle.

The remainder of the third episode takes us dizzyingly through World War I, Versailles, the rise of fascism, dirigibles, cars driving up the Campidoglio in Rome, coal mining, the manufacture of nylon, Hitler, the Japanese, and the Ethiopian war, following which Ethiopian sand is used to make machines that, in turn, are used to make spaghetti! At the end Rossellini summarizes the specific events leading to World War II, and the combination of shots, images, and facts presents a remarkably clear overview of the war itself. The accent throughout is purposely on guns and cannons in order to underline the historical and thematic connection with earlier episodes.

The fourth episode concerns itself largely with the fictional story of a metal-worker named Montagnani, who, like many Italians, was caught in the middle by General Badoglio's surrender to the Allies on September 8, 1943, while the northern half of the country was still occupied by the Nazis. When the Germans attempt to dismantle the factory at Piombino, Montagnani altruistically sets off on a bicycle to find out where they are taking the raw material. His travels lead him to Florence, as he follows first the truck and then the train that the Germans plan to use to transport the material to Germany. Coming at this point in the series, his story serves the function of an anecdote in an essay, told


for illustrative purposes. Montagnani is meant to be seen as a representative figure, yet he is also sharply etched in historical terms. As we journey with him, we also get a sense of the everyday lives of people simply trying to get along in the face of a great historical upheaval: we meet Fascists, common villagers, escaped British prisoners, and partisan train workers.[6]

Rossellini has included this fictional piece to make thematic connections with earlier episodes, for Montagnani is seen primarily as a man intensely devoted to his work and, therefore, to what will become of his factory. He takes pride in his labor, the pride of an artisan (linking him overtly to the craftsmen we have seen through the three thousand years depicted in the other episodes)—and is in no sense an alienated worker, resentful of management or private property. In this series, at least, Rossellini seems almost incapable of imagining this latter possibility. Instead, he offers an image of a harmonious relationship between management and labor based on a presumed commonality of interest, craftsmanship, and progress, a harmony barely conceivable in the context of real labor history. In this sense, the spirit of the film recalls the wished-for unity of Catholic and Communist at the end of Open City .

On one level the series attempts to create a picture of humanity deeply influenced by its history, environment, and, above all, the technology it has created along the way. (It is especially interesting that all of this is conceived in terms of a metal: Rossellini is right to complain that technology has been overlooked.) But his essentialist bias is still as strong as ever. For one thing, Montagnani is overtly offered as an Everyman figure who links our present-day world to the world of the past. Despite the superficial differences of modern civilization, Montagnani's view of his work, especially, is very little changed from the Etruscan craftsmen portrayed, in the first episode, at the dawn of the Iron Age. The many spatial and historical connections the film makes are also important for Rossellini's essentialist theme. Much is made, for example, of the fact that the government established the ILVA company in 1898 in order to exploit the mineral resources of the island of Elba, discontinued since Etruscan times, and that Piombino, the location of Montagnani's factory, is the ancient Etruscan city of Populonia, the site of the earliest iron works. Once again, Rossellini's insistence on carefully placing humans in history, in a given era and location, leads to a transcendent humanist view that is ultimately ahistorical.[7]

The history he recounts here, as in most of the didactic films, also has a strong teleological cast to it. In the final episode the war has ended, the Germans have been defeated, and people everywhere are looking to rebuild their lives; this larger theme is represented synecdochically in the quest of the factory at Piombino to begin production again. The factory manager piously intones, "Our duty is to give work," and the representative of the common man, Montagnani, is here reintroduced. He marvels at all the tremendous activity of rebuilding that he sees around him, his wonder replicating that of the engineer of the second episode of India who wanders about the site of the Hirakud dam he has just helped to build. When the workers pour molten iron into its form, we are visually reminded of the earlier episodes, and the message is clear that what we are watching are merely different historical moments of a single human enterprise whose final contours are preordained. At this point the film begins



The modern factory in  L'età del ferro  (1964).

praising the Italian economic miracolo to the accompaniment of stirring music, and Rossellini plunges into an orgiastic celebration of industrial productivity. Montage, presumably reflecting the masculine aggressivity of heavy industry, now takes over completely.[8]

Consumption is linked with progress, and, perhaps unsurprisingly for 1964, both are touted without a single word of doubt. The voice-over (which appears for the first time) warms to its task and begins shouting "Machines! Machines!" as it launches into a poetic outburst on the complexity of the equipment used to manufacture the refrigerators we see pouring off the assembly line.[9] Nothing could be more indicative of the shift from what Rossellini had begun calling the "morbid and complaining" films of the Bergman era to the new era of science and human possibility than the change in the portrayal of industrial machinery. In a climactic scene in Europa '51 , it will be remembered, machinery was regarded as threatening and dehumanizing; now Rossellini seems to have become so enamored of the machines' impersonal beauty that he has completely forgotten the reality of the human beings operating them. As Pio Baldelli has pointed out: "As usual, the director exalts the geometry of the factory buildings, the rational cleanliness of the tools and the products, the mechanical perfection of the gears, but he does not bother himself about the fact that behind the naked and rational walls men are working."[10]


Rossellini's reply to this objection, of course, would be that if men once began to understand the modern world they would no longer be alienated from it, and thus an innate hostility between man and machine cannot be assumed. What the director would have a more difficult time answering is Baldelli's complaint that the series shows

nothing concerning the cultural currents that feed a sort of business ideology which would like to model the perfect citizen of tomorrow and especially the patient worker of today, transforming him into an anonymous completer of tasks. "Democracy and well-being are the same," the instructor teaches. "The two decades of the Fascists were terrible, but look at the two decades of the Christian Democrats instead."[11]

As the final episode continues, the pace quickens. The voice-over, now almost feverish, shouts: "Motors! Life—always faster! Ve-lo-ci-ty!!!!" Even the words and phrases are broken up into sharp syllables that match the fast cuts on the image track. (One sight of this sequence alone would be enough to bury forever the simplistic notion of Rossellini as the man of the long take.) In fact, the fragmentation of voice and image, increasing continually in speed, is enormously exciting. The bizarre music also seems to fit perfectly as the voice-over applauds the uniformity that has permitted the economic miracle: "Few models! Thousands of cars!" Unfortunately, what seems to be elided here is that this uniformity has also spelled the end of the craftsmanship that linked Montagnani with the Etruscans. More importantly, Rossellini forgets that this very boom, founded upon uniformity, stepped-up production and consumption, and an uncritical faith in material progress, is exactly what his earlier films condemned as the cause of the selfish emptiness of figures like Irene of Europa '51 .

The pace continues faster and faster, now bringing in "Skyscrapers, bridges, freeways, ve-lo-ci-ty! Ships!" (Shots of engine rooms make the parallel with La nave bianca nearly exact.) "Jet planes! Two hundred seventy meters in one second!" (The second is counted aloud.) "Atomic energy!" And, then, "Space!" This is the final link that is meant to tie all the episodes together: the steel of the spacecraft takes us back into space, whence, as the first episode explained, the earliest peoples thought all metal had come. The series closes with a view of the harmony and world brotherhood that will result from all this amazing economic progress, making conflict obsolete and unnecessary: "We work! Everybody together! Everybody equal! Ex-enemies!" The pictures, music, and voice-over have combined to move the viewer profoundly with the possibilities before us. What excitement![12] Then the viewer recalls the succeeding twenty years since the series was made, and the naïveté and willful forgetfulness of its vision become apparent.

In spite of its flaws, however, it is clear that Rossellini's amalgam of fact and fiction, documentary and previous film is boldly new. At this point his historical project must have looked very promising indeed. He was fully installed in his new medium, after all, and ideas for projects were constantly occurring to him. Even at this early date, however, it soon became obvious that the commitment of the RAI was halfhearted at best, and the series was aired on five successive Fridays between February 19 and March 19, 1965, at 9:15 in the evening. As


Sergio Trasatti has pointed out, despite appearances, this was a quite unfavorable time slot, since it was up against "Weekly Appointment With the Theater," and whoever chose to watch L'età del ferro would have had to skip Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra , and Sabrina . Naturally, L'età del ferro did poorly, gathering fewer than a third as many viewers as the other channel. Nor, unfortunately, was this treatment unique, for with it began a sad pattern that would help to make the historical films, Rossellini's last chance, a failure as well. As Trasatti reports: "L'età del ferro is one of the few important programs of the RAI which was never reshown, like almost all the work Rossellini did for television. The only exception is La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV , which was transmitted for the second time, in a celebrative key, the day following the director's death."[13]


28— L'Età del Ferro (1964)

Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.