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

31— Acts of the Apostles (1969)

Acts of the Apostles

After the success of the relatively small-scale Louis XIV , Rossellini returned to the multipart series of grander scope, this time undertaking a nearly six-hour adaptation of Atti degli apostoli (Acts of the Apostles) , the book of the New Testament that outlines the first faltering steps of the Church to establish itself in the absence of Christ. It is precisely this absence that comes to define the entire series, and thus even though the biblical account begins with Christ's Ascension into heaven, Rossellini appropriately omits it altogether. Faithful to its biblical source, the film traces the early activities of the apostles; the first conversions and baptisms; disputes over variant interpretations of Christ's words; and Paul's preaching to the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans. Rossellini's admiration for Paul is clear throughout, and in spite of the initial impression of a dispersed focus, this film takes its place among the other studies of individual figures: "In the case of Paul, I am trying to communicate to the public the sense of immense grandness that the man had. Paul traveled in the opposite direction on the roads trod by the Roman armies and a religious movement without equal arises from the footprints of this obscure wayfarer, this small and mediocre Judean, this Tarsan upholsterer."[1]

The great value of this series is that in it Rossellini approaches the early days of Christianity as history , at least as he understood the word, rather than as fulfillment of the foretold. Apart from a general, probably inescapable, teleological thrust (after all, Christianity won), neither the apostles in the film nor the audience have the comfort of knowing that these original Christians will always make the right choice. Significantly, Rossellini eliminates almost all the various miracles performed by Peter and Paul, which, in the Biblical account,


establish their spiritual authority.[2] In Rossellini's version they have nothing but their faith to rely on. Their own foibles and frailties are characteristically highlighted, because for Rossellini they are, like Saint Francis, always men before they are saints.

The television series consists of five episodes (the version in theatrical release is simply the first two episodes put together), and was shot by Rossellini and his son in the brilliant whiteness of the southeast corner of Tunisia, using Tunisian actors for all the roles except those of the most important apostles.[3] Principal filming took place in a location between Sousse and Kairouan because of its still-standing ancient architecture, and because one side faced the desert (whose sandstorms and scorpions plagued the filming), while the other was dotted with lagunas filled with photogenic flamingos. The magnificent authenticity of the houses, streets, and even the walls of Jerusalem are a result of this choice of location, and, with the aid of mirrors that substituted Jewish architectural features for the Islamic upper parts of various buildings, the great mosque of Kairouan easily became the temple of Jerusalem. The scenes of imperial Rome were filmed at Ostia antica, the restored Roman city located between present-day Rome and the sea, whereas for the scenes at the end of the series, Rossellini uncharacteristically reconstructed the Porta Capena of Rome.[4] The music of Rossellini's television films now also reaches its definitive form in Mario Nascimbene's brilliant score; here he uses a provocative electronic mixture of instruments such as ancient Jewish shofars and Indian sitars and tamburas.

The Acts of the Apostles was chosen not for any overtly religious reasons, as Rossellini's most serious attackers have insisted, but because he saw the advent of Christianity, reasonably enough, as an important turning point in the history of humankind. Baldelli criticizes the director for making the apostles' speeches seem "inspired," as though continuously guided from heaven; this is, of course, the way the apostles saw the matter, but Rossellini refuses to give outside, independent verification of supernatural intervention. And though Baldelli attacks the gap between the apostles' actions as real men and their inspired talk, it seems clear that it is precisely this fundamentally ambiguous space that the film seeks to inhabit and explore.[5]

Rossellini's overtly expressed reasons for making this film also reveal his own particular idiosyncratic view of things. He told interviewers that he made the film "because I think the arrival of Christianity was an important turning point changing man's relationship to nature and thereby putting him in a position to act. The result was Western civilization. This happened in the specific historical context of Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem. Acts of the Apostles is about Jerusalem. For Greece, I've chosen Socrates."[6] Elsewhere in this interview Rossellini insists, "Even more than being in harmony with nature, man must be conscious of it, and also dominate it." Thus, the thesis of Acts of the Apostles , for Rossellini at least, turns out to be only marginally related to a spiritual change in humans' minds, and much more closely linked to a historical shift in the human view of nature. Rossellini also outlined in a letter the position this series occupies: "We show the change in ethics in our history when the Hebrew idea of nature—a gift of God which man must use to distinguish himself from the ani-



Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, in  Acts of the Apostles  (1968).

mals—spreads, thanks to Christianity, through the Greek-Roman pagan world, which had regarded nature as something inviolable which men, through rite and ritual, tried to render benign."[7] His most direct statement, however, comes in the 1975 interview with Écran . "Before the apostles," he says, "nature was something untouchable for the pagan world. For the Christian religion, it became a gift of God to man, from which he was supposed to profit as best he could. The apostles' entire effort was to propagate this idea. It is a very profound change of ethics which they accomplished. And we've profited a little too much from it!"[8] What this view becomes in later centuries, simply put, is the Protestant ethic. In spite of being in the middle of the Bible, in other words, it turns out that we are not very far from L'età del ferro after all. The true historical importance of Christianity, Rossellini seems to be saying, is that it allowed the development of the scientific method, which brought in its wake manufacturing, technology, and capitalism. As we shall see, this view will dominate all the films to come.

Rossellini's other major theme concerns the law and its relative status in the Jewish and Christian communities. Throughout, the director stresses the clash of differing conceptions of the law, just as he will some six years later when he comes to make his final film, The Messiah . (This theme also relates to the theme of man's changing relation to nature, for it is principally through law that this relation is formalized and determined for succeeding generations.) Saul insists early on, before his conversion to Christianity, that Stephen must be stoned because he has broken the law; and Saul more than once explicitly imputes au-


thority to himself because he is a man of the law and thus knows whereof he speaks. His request to hunt down the Christians provides a good summary of the way Rossellini sees Jewish law (since the speech is invented):

But I too am a doctor of the law. Also of me it will be said: he defended the honor of the Temple, he preserved the purity of the law. . . . When the Messiah comes—this is the promise—Israel will rule the earth. We live in this waiting. This is the reason for the law which we gave ourselves. The holiest law and therefore, inviolable law. . . . This is why we must be ruthless.

Later, after his conversion, Saul, now Paul, provides the perfect complementary statement, also invented, from the Christian point of view:

But today I tell you: the promise made by God to Abraham was that the Messiah would come. . . . And so that our people would faithfully wait the day of his coming, we were given the law in which we are enclosed, protected, as if we were prisoners. . . . This law, for centuries, has guided our people in their waiting for the Messiah. But now the Messiah has come! And it is not through the observance of the letter of the law but through faith in Him that we will be saved![9]

For Rossellini the essence of Judaism—and thus the essence of this period of human history and consciousness—is its relation to a law thought of as coming directly from God. In this, he aligns himself with an ancient theme whose most recent version is articulated in Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy .[10]

As "accurate" representation of history, Acts of the Apostles is another of the historical films that creates its own hedge, since it makes no specific, overt claim to recreate the actual historical past, and can be seen simply as an adaptation of this particular book of the Bible. Edoardo Bruno finds it a wonderful history film because ancient daily life is so "accurately" rendered, while Goffredo Fofi finds it a bad history film because it does not show the reasons for events or the historic choices open to the apostles.[11] Bruno also attempts to co-opt the Marxist argument by claiming:

Rossellini makes use of a text (Luke's) to discover a reality successively, and then to cancel it according to a method of dialectical observation, which is part of "critical Marxism." In this sense the objective dimension makes the represented stories, the human relationships, and the conflicts between tradition and politics both believable and unbelievable at the same time. And the more it exalts the ambiguity of the signs, the more, after all, it reduces the margin of imposed judgment, and it creates the premises for a free reexamination of the facts.[12]

Bruno's argument is finally not very convincing, however, and he does admit that occasionally the signs become less ambiguous and move back toward a "theological transcendentalism," against the grain of the rest of the film.

Another aspect of the question of adaptation is that, while very little is invented expressly for the film that is not in the Bible, and conversely, very little has been left out, the film version is necessarily quite different from its source in terms of its mode of presentation. The Bible, of course, is long on words and short on character, location, atmosphere, gesture, and drama, all of which must


be added. Even the Fioretti of Saint Francis, for example, told stories that could be directly adapted for the screen, whereas the biblical Acts of the Apostles is little more than a dry record of what was said and, only minimally, what was done. In other words, for this film Rossellini must paradoxically add dramatic elements not found in his source to achieve his characteristic dedramatized look.[13] Similarly, Rossellini's Peter and Paul have a specific individuality, which, though still minimal by Hollywood standards, greatly exceeds the information provided by the biblical account.

Nevertheless, Rossellini's usual downplaying of the "great events" of history, putting them on the dramatic level of the most mundane, still predominates, and the blinding of Saul and the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr, are given barely more emphasis than the homeliest details of everyday life. In fact, the latter often have even more time devoted to them than the former; when gifts are brought to the community, for example, we see, all in one take, each gift laboriously recorded on clay tablets and then watch as the tablets are baked. It is, of course, the Pancinor zoom that allows these leveling long takes, a technique to which Rossellini is by this point firmly and unalterably committed. Peter Lloyd has maintained, interestingly, that the zoom is the "stylistic key to the movie," because it suggests context and thus relates the human to the spiritual. Thus, when Matthias is made an apostle, the camera zooms out to put the human in a spiritual context. With Peter, the camera at times zooms in to emphasize the human and the mortal and, at other times, zooms out for the spiritual context, resulting in a dialectical style that suggests both action and limitation, unified through a single image.[14] It is unclear, however, why a wider angle should necessarily imply the spiritual; it is all too easy to become categorical in this regard, and more dogmatic than Rossellini himself ever would have been. Also, Rossellini uses this specific zoom movement in all of the historical films from this point on; sometimes it works dialectically, but more often it is used simply for variety and even, very conventionally, to focus the viewer's attention. At this moment in his life, Rossellini is above all a pragmatist; he has a message that he wants to promulgate, and whatever will conduct him most directly to the realization of that goal is what is right. Thus, for the food riot that occurs in the third episode, the director does not rely on the zoom and long take at all, but returns instead to a more appropriate montage, with a great deal of fast cutting, unconcerned about compromising his artistic "purity."

As with all serious films, however, Rossellini's technical means are directly related to the themes he is trying to portray. Thus, the conflict between the old law and the new, mentioned above, is also symbolized structurally and visually in terms of the great attention paid to alternative forms of worship. The Jews, for example, are consistently seen in terms of sacrifice and obedience to an unchanging law, and much of this comes to reside in the obvious, but profound, symbol of fire. Conversely, the Christians are portrayed largely in communal terms, and it is this aspect of their worship that is emphasized; again, these values come together in their partiality for water, seen principally, of course, in the sacrament of baptism. Peter Lloyd has seen this opposition working in more formal terms as well, pointing out the contrast between the rectangle of the Christians' communal area and the rectangle of the Sanhedrin's sacrificial altar.


The latter is shot mostly at ground level, while the former is usually done in long shot, in panning movements, or from a high angle to stress the wholeness of community life.[15] For Lloyd this is evidence for the "essential dualism" of the film, yet in the rest of the five-part series (it is clear from his article that Lloyd is speaking only of the two-episode version in theatrical release), Christianity is seen principally as a vehicle by which essentially Hebraic ideas are spread across the known world, rather than as a superior religion.

The treatment of this series by the RAI was better than usual. By broadcasting it on successive Sunday evenings, traditionally the time slot of the most popular shows, the bureaucrats were taking a big gamble. It paid off, for the "enjoyment ratings" (an average of seventy-four) were the highest that any Rossellini television show was ever to have, and an average of 8.6 million homes watched each episode, Rossellini for once beating the popular competition. Trasatti insists that a great change in the sophistication of the television public since L'età del ferro was responsible for the increased success, but it seems more plausible to credit the religious nature of the subject in this still (officially, at least) Catholic country. Unfortunately, however, the top executives at the RAI were replaced just at this moment, and the new officials declared that the production of Acts of the Apostles was "crude and clumsy."[16] Thoroughly upset, Rossellini resigned from the directorship of the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia, the leading Italian film school, declaring that he would now have to go abroad to continue his filmmaking and thus could no longer work with students.


31— Acts of the Apostles (1969)

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