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

32— Socrates (1970)


Around this time Rossellini also undertook a documentary on Sicily for American television. The film was mentioned in American trade newspapers as early as July 1967 and was broadcast on NBC in 1968 as "Roberto Rossellini's Sicily." In its final form, it is a one-hour film that tries to rescue the "idea of an island" (its title in Italian when it was broadcast in Italy on February 3, 1970) from the myths that have overtaken it.

Rossellini's sense of what he was trying to accomplish in this film (largely assembled by his son Renzo) was quite clear from the start. As he pointed out in an interview, he was more interested in putting the island in its proper historical perspective, which meant seeing it as a land that had been repeatedly invaded by countless races and cultures.

Sicily has on average had a new master every 117 years. . . . To have an idea of the tragedy of Sicilian history, you only have to know that not a single plant on the island today is a native one; everything was imported. . . . Sicily has been devoured—and so of course the Sicilian people have developed a tendency towards secrecy as a form of defence. Women are always the first victims of invaders, and this is the origin of the distorted view of women Sicilians have. . . . My film was a kind of defence of Sicily.[1]

Not everyone, of course, will find Rossellini's "sociological" explanation of Sicilian sexism convincing.

Despite the fact that it has been called by some a glimpse into the "very soul of the Sicilians," and despite the director's good intentions in documenting this encounter between him and the island, the film is quite disappointing. One


senses throughout that Rossellini is trying to say something different; in fact, he ends up reinforcing clichés, such as "every Sicilian sees himself as a hero" and "Sicilians are also shrewd." Rossellini's account of relations between the sexes is particularly offensive, and at one point he suggests that Sicilian men are intent on seducing foreign women as a way of "getting even" for all the foreign conquests they have had to endure. Further, because the director tries to cover too much ground in a short time—art, architecture, social customs, agriculture, politics, geography, history, work, and so on—the film's transitions are often jarring and little real information is conveyed in a coherent fashion.

Infinitely more important was Rossellini's next major didactic project, Socrates . According to Marcella Mariani, Rossellini's sister, the film was shot in Spain because of the availability of so many different facial types and because the director refused to shoot in a Greece then under military dictatorship.[2] A very few interior scenes were shot in the Samuel Bronston studios in Madrid, where such films as El Cid, 55 Days in Peking , and King of Kings had been made. The great majority of the location shooting, however, took place in a little town called Patones Arriba, about fifty miles from Madrid, whose open town square allowed perfectly for the reconstruction of the Athenian agora. Trasatti says that problems with the RAI continued, and at one point Rossellini actually stopped production until the network replaced its representative on the set. At the time, Variety reported that the director was upset with the RAI because it had taken nine months of negotiations to arrive at a final contract and budget for the film. Furthermore, of the total cost of 240 million lire ($380,000), the RAI had contributed only 81 million to get all the Italian rights plus four percent of foreign sales (excluding France), while the French network had put up 48 million lire for the French broadcasting rights alone.[3]

Rossellini had wanted to make a film on Socrates since the postwar days. Perhaps his deepest intellectual identification was with the Greek philosopher, and he laughingly agreed that they were alike in never having made any money from their professions. But he also acknowledged their common insistence on doing what interested them and what they judged useful: "Certainly Socrates is a character I feel very close to. Certainly the choice also came from a sympathetic affinity: that's inevitable, no? If I tried to resist this kind of attraction then I'd be acting like an intellectual, and I don't want to: I present myself with my guts in my hands, as I am."[4] It is clear that in his desire to go his own way despite all obstacles, his commitment to the power of reason, his belief that knowledge is the highest good that humans can attain (notwithstanding the apparent anti-intellectualism of the above remark), Rossellini is very close indeed to the spirit of Socrates.

It is also no accident that Rossellini should be interested in Socrates in a more philosophical sense as well, for it is with Socrates that the history of Western philosophy can be said to begin. He is the source of logocentrism, as we know it, the source of many of our most fundamental beliefs concerning reason, logic, language, and truth. It is these essentialist concepts, of course, that ground the Western humanism that is so crucial to Rossellini's project, and thus it is fitting that he make a film in which they are glorified. Rossellini saw Socrates as representing "the invitation to rationality, to good conscience, to responsibility"



The triumph of reason: Socrates (Jean Sylvère) addresses his
fellow Athenians in Socrates  (1970).

in the terrible atmosphere created by the fall of Athens to the Spartans. The philosopher asked, "What are good, evil, justice, truth, art, and what is man. . . . And Socrates died because he gave witness to the truth."[5] It is perhaps no coincidence that, during an interview conducted on the very set of this film, Rossellini also developed perhaps his most limpid statement of essentialism: "I make historical films, and I try to reconstruct civilizations, customs, and cultures, convinced that, at bottom, man does not change, but only the historical context. The human 'given' is permanent, while the cultural 'given' varies."[6]

Most of what we have come to expect from a Rossellini historical film reappears in Socrates . Thus, static medium shots prevail, the acting is flat, and there is little narrative building, at least until the last third of the film. In addition, a great deal of attention is paid to the everyday particularities of Greek life that have since become exotic: Socrates pays for something with a coin taken from his mouth, and the crowd applauds at various times by snapping its fingers. We also learn of the Greek respect for laws, their religious customs, the importance this civilization placed in democracy, how its rulers and judges were chosen, and so on. The city of Athens itself becomes a signifying entity in the same way Rome and Jerusalem do in other Rossellini films. The film opens, in fact, with


the destruction of the walls of Athens, as the victorious Spartans look up in amazement at the acropolis, the jewel of the civilization they have just defeated. As usual, we are at an important turning point in Western civilization, a point of transition, and nobody knows what will happen next. The matte shots of the Parthenon and other Greek buildings are not very good (though they are more convincing on the small screen), but it seems clear this was not by design:

Socrates was made with a processing system that we have developed. I did it in Spain with a Spanish cameraman, who was not at all used to those kinds of things, so the result is not very satisfactory, but I don't mind. I had a lot of the same kind of processing shots in Louis XIV , the building of Versailles and, in the beginning, the Louvre palace. But there I had a cameraman who was more capable than the other one.[7]

The inexperience of the Spanish cameraman also may have contributed to the more awkward use of the zoom in this film, as compared with the earlier Louis XIV . The lens movement is not always smoothly accomplished and sometimes starts and stops in a disconcerting manner, a far cry from the total fluidity that will be achieved in Augustine of Hippo . Yet it is also true that, in other places, the zoom is quite smooth indeed: when Socrates is being taunted by the satiric scene from Aristophanes, for example, the zoom-in on the philosopher is effectively intercut three or four times with shots of the comedian, while the zoom itself keeps moving.

Once again, the film is an adaptation of documents from the past—Plato's dialogues—rather than an attempt to portray history directly. Naturally, a good deal of liberty is taken in mixing material from different dialogues, and Guarner has made the obvious and correct point that this method is perfectly appropriate, given that Plato himself was not recording verbatim, but rather seeking to present a summarized view of Socrates' life and thought.[8] The period covered in the film is five years, from 404 B.C., when the Spartans tear down the walls of Athens, to 399 B.C., when Socrates drinks the fatal hemlock. Rossellini is careful, as usual, to put what we are about to see in its proper historical context, and thus the second shot is of the empty agora, held quite some time in order to permit us to situate ourselves. The camera finally picks up a man walking toward us and then begins following him through the streets, creating a bit of narrative suspense (where is he going?) and conveying documentary information at the same time. We are next treated to not one but two successive introductory banquet scenes in which the historical groundwork is rather cumbersomely laid while, at the same time, giving us a picture of upper-middle-class Greek life of the period. The minutiae of Athenian history quickly overwhelms the viewer, unfortunately, leading one to conclude that it might have been more useful to present the historical exposition throughout the course of the film, as it was needed.

The figure of Socrates himself emerges out of this context only after the exposition scenes, in the same delayed manner of Louis XIV, and in a thoroughly unheroic way: he is being beaten by a gang of Athenians who disapprove of his teachings. Again, as we have seen since the Garibaldi of Viva l'Italia! , Rossellini's portrait is of an ordinary man who also happens to be a genius, and who lived a banal, daily life like everyone else. In a typically quick and discreet bit of


"humanizing," Rossellini has Socrates try to buy an octopus with too little money, and as the vendor is about to complain, Crito makes a sign behind the philosopher's back that he, Crito, will pay the rest later. Rossellini also makes an attempt at various points during the film to account for the fact that so many Athenians disliked Socrates—by including the satire from Aristophanes, for example—but in the context of the film's overwhelmingly positive view of the philosopher, we cannot help but see these objections as ill-humored and even laughable.

Furthermore, Rossellini is careful to foreground what might be called the "Christlike" elements of Socrates, both thematically and visually, for the philosopher and the crucified Jew are regarded as being engaged in the same quest for the truth. Hence, scenes of Socrates imbibing from a chalice with his disciples (who are called that throughout the film) are strongly reminiscent of Christian iconography, especially his drinking of the hemlock at the end, with its clear suggestion of sacrifice for others. (The iconography of Socrates' death scene is also a direct copy of Giotto's version of the death of Saint Francis of Assisi.) This Christological emphasis is strengthened by various remarks of Socrates concerning, for example, what it means to be a "good shepherd." It should be pointed out that this strategy did not originate with Rossellini, of course, and is visually suggested at least as early as David's painting The Death of Socrates (1787), which contains precisely twelve disciples.

The rest of the film follows the philosopher through several dialectical encounters with Athenians who scurry off when they realize he has gotten the logical better of them, the accusation by Miletus against him for having corrupted youth and substituted new gods (significantly, it is the latter charge that Rossellini focuses upon), the trial, and the final scene of his death, surrounded by his followers in a cave. It is with the trial and the long scene in the cave that Rossellini finally gives in to a palpable narrative drive as well as emotional interest, something that he consistently frustrates through the rest of the film. (When Socrates is first told that there is an accusation against him, for example, he goes to investigate, but just before he looks at the posted notice, he falls into a lengthy, abstract debate about the meaning of pietà .) The drama of emotions, at least until the very end of the film, is always subordinated to the drama of ideas.[9]

Socrates is, overall, uneven. Frankly, it is also boring in a way that most of the other historical films manage to avoid. First, there is the awkward, static attempt to convey too much historical information at one time. In Acts of the Apostles , the same expository technique is used, but it is, of course, information that, for the most part, we already know. More important, this is the first time that Rossellini attempts to convey the essence of a philosopher, an attempt that is unleavened, unlike in Pascal and Augustine of Hippo , with information of a more biographical nature. The problem of too much language is further exacerbated by the use of subtitles, so that, for a non-Italian-speaking audience, watching the film comes perilously close to reading a book; if there was ever a film for which dubbing was justified, it is this one. When Socrates is engaged in a dialogue, however, the language takes on a life and drama of its own, creating a bit of intellectual suspense as the audience waits to see how he will trap his interlocutor in the fine net of his logic.


Certain parts of the film are simply uninteresting, and so slow that one becomes aware that often the zoom is desperately trying to create a visual diversion, moving in and out for no good reason. One is never at ease with the flat, visually dead long takes of Socrates as one is with the pregnant long takes of the rest of Rossellini's career. (Significantly, this film contains many more close-ups than most of the other historical films, in an effort to provide visual variety and to emphasize what is being said.) Yet there are other "slow" moments in this film that function beautifully. The best example occurs near the end, when Socrates is walking back and forth to get the hemlock working in his legs. The scene seems to go on forever, yet it is so "human" (as opposed to a more conventional version, where the poison would work right away so as to avoid any possible dead time), that we are riveted. In fact, the entire last third of the film is laden with an enormous and moving sense of dignity, partly as a result of its slowness, that clearly redeems its earlier indirection and awkwardness. Though Trasatti and others cavil about whether the ending is too "emotional" compared with the other films (they excuse it by putting Rossellini in some mythical tug-of-war between spectacle and emotional distancing), it seems to serve no purpose to be more aesthetically "pure" than this very rigorous director himself felt it necessary to be.

Much more damaging is the lack of historical explanation where we do need it—for example, concerning the motivation of Socrates' accusers and the reason he had to die. This is, in fact, the principal weakness of the film. The trial and death of Socrates have always been clouded in mystery, of course, and if Rossellini had offered an analysis and an answer, they would have had to been based on little more than his own guesswork and intuition. Yet that is, in effect, what he does, though somewhat more covertly, for he attributes the philosopher's death solely to the fact that he "gave witness to the truth." Trasatti, a Catholic, agrees, because he also wants to see Socrates as a precursor of Christ, and he is impatient with the leftist critics who complain about the missing explanations. If they would only see the whole thing in a Christian light, everything would become obvious: "The motives behind Socrates' death, in Rossellini's vision, become extremely clear if the matter of the trial and the hemlock are looked at as a sort of 'Via Crucis.'"[10]

These leftist critics, of course, see things differently. Thus, Paolo Bertetto, writing in Sipario , complains that Rossellini erases all of Socrates' radicality and the confrontation of ideas by putting them in terms of a conflict between good and evil. The film thus becomes "a consoling gratification on the eternal battle between the supreme principles, according to the reading of a naturalistic narrative, fictionalized and preconstituted."[11] Baldelli, in the last two pages of his book on Rossellini, excoriates the film and sees in it everything that he dislikes about the director. For him, presenting the standard view of history like this can only serve the ideology of the state. Simply to offer Socrates as a model for today, out of his context of slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, aligns Rossellini with "the ruling conformity." What we learn from Socrates, the critic complains, is that parliamentary democracy is best, that the soul goes to heaven after death (the true liberation), and that one should not involve oneself in politics because it is too dirty. Socrates tells his followers to obey the law above all


and serve the state with humility. Baldelli's basic question, a powerful one, concerns Socrates' refusal to claim knowledge:

Knowing that you do not know, in order to further the autonomy of the individual: but knowing for what purpose, when you abstain from intervening on the most fundamental levels of existence? Certainly, it serves to discourage the presumption of possessing knowledge through heredity or dogma. But if knowledge, slowly gathered through great effort, does not augment the drive to change reality, it equals the inertia of wise contemplation which must proclaim that nothing certain exists if not the humility of tolerance. Which is exactly the reactionary ideology of a neutral science beyond the political fray, with the scientist or the philosopher who paternalistically lavishes truth and culture on his pupils.[12]

First shown at the Venice film festival in 1970, Socrates was awarded a prize out of competition. According to Trasatti, the film was not admitted into the normal competition because, at that point, producers and the major studios were very alarmed about the intrusion of RAI television into the making of films.[13] (Fellini's The Clowns and Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem , both financed by the television network, were also presented at the same festival.) The RAI was unable to capitalize on the favorable publicity the film had generated, however, for, inexplicably, it decided not to broadcast Socrates until the following year. Even worse, the two-hour film was split in half, completely destroying the logic of its internal rhythm; the first half was shown on Thursday, June 17, 1971, and the second on Sunday, June 20. As usual, it was put up against a very popular show and on the first night registered only 5 million viewers, while its competition garnered 16 million. On Sunday night the ratings rose to 7.5 million viewers. More importantly, however, and perhaps shocking to the RAI, the "index of enjoyment" was seventy for part one and seventy-five for part two, quite respectable figures.


32— Socrates (1970)

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