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

34— Augustine of Hippo (1972)

Augustine of Hippo

Following work on Pascal , Rossellini traveled to South America in hopes of marketing his previous work for television. While in Chile, he filmed a discussion lasting some forty minutes between himself and Salvador Allende, then the freely elected Socialist president of Chile, soon to be overthrown in a CIA-backed military coup. The film was eventually shown on Italian television the evening of the coup, September 15, 1973, when it was too late for anything but grim irony.

The camera largely concentrates on President Allende, and the director's great admiration for him is obvious: Rossellini tells him immediately, "I have an immense sympathy for your ideals."[1] In the interview Allende traces his personal history, the history of his movement, and the goals of Chile's peaceful revolution, and Rossellini is clearly pleased by the fact that Allende seemed to be accomplishing his goals democratically, without repression. At one point Rossellini even summarizes: "You are trying to bring about a revolution fully respecting the laws of the land and those democratic rules that so many other revolutionary movements despise" (p. 16). Rossellini carefully draws from the Chilean president an in-depth analysis of Latin America's long-term economic problems, including a forthright, illuminating explanation that the real purpose of the Monroe Doctrine is to protect North American interests. Later he seems to align Allende with his own ongoing project: "You have been absolutely clear and have opened up horizons that are completely new to the present-day manner of thinking" (p. 17), and the accent throughout the interview is on the use of the media, on "educating public opinion." The film ends with Allende's very Rossellinian view of the future of humanity:


[We] hope with all our hearts that the man of the 21st century will be a man with a different conception of the universe, with a just sense of values, a man who does not think and act basically in terms of money, a man who is fortunate enough to realize that there are wider dimensions to concentrate his intelligence on, that intelligence that is his great creative strength. I have faith in man, but as a real human being with the accent on humanitarian qualities—a man who lives in a world where we are all brothers, not merely individuals seeking to live by exploiting others (p.19).

Seen today, in the context of Allende's murder a short time after the filming, the interview is intensely moving.

Rossellini's next full-length film concerns the life of Saint Augustine, the fifth-century theologian and one of the "fathers of the Church." Turning decisively away from the personality probing of Pascal , Rossellini chooses to focus on the last part of the saint's life (hence the title Agostino d'Ippona [Augustine of Hippo ]), characteristically omitting Augustine's early, licentious life so lovingly detailed in the Confessions . One can scarcely imagine any other filmmaker voluntarily giving up such rich material to film what is, essentially, the life of a small-town, premedieval bishop. Nor does Rossellini focus on Augustine's career as theologian and philosopher. What seems to interest him much more is the collapse of the Roman empire and its effect on human consciousness. As usual, Rossellini places himself at a turning point in Western civilization, a moment that might be situated roughly midway between classical Rome and the Middle Ages. We learn the ways in which reality has come to be defined in terms of the empire; what confronts humankind in its stead is nothing but the black unknowableness of the future. The very beginning of the film assails us with images of ruins, barely a stone left upon a stone; bandits roam the land, and civilization, as it has been known to this point, seems dead. The citizens of Rome, stunned, seek to put the blame on the Christians, but Augustine offers decisive arguments that the empire fell of its own internal corruption and makes clear that the only hope for the future, in fact, lies with the Church. The sacrifices made by the first Christians, as well as their strong sense of community, loom large in Augustine of Hippo , constituting a (retrospectively) "unified" tradition to live up to. As we move further and further away from the direct and divine presence, however, toward the confusion of difference, truth is obscured and heresies spring up like noxious weeds. Now we have only the written word to rely upon—a reliance that had been denounced by Socrates—and the "guarantee" of living speech is forever gone. Difference also inevitably threatens unity, and thus what is crucial for Augustine (and, in a sense, for the director as well) is that the heretical Donatists he battles throughout the film "want to destroy the unity of the Church of Christ."[2] The chief, unwitting irony of the film is that Augustine is finally able to establish spiritual truth only by invoking the temporal authority of what remains of Roman law and government to suppress the Donatists.

If the film's sketchy portrait of the Donatist heretics is hardly appealing (considering that they mostly seem to enjoy beating up other Christians), Augustine's pagan opposition is more so, and we are made to sympathize with their worry about the future. One of their principal objections to Christianity is its


focus on the spiritual and the otherworldly to the exclusion of the sensual and the here and now. In an efficient scene two pagans visit the studio of a "modern" artist. When they accuse the artist of "losing the sense of beauty" he replies that his sculptures "must not speak to the senses, but to the spirit." Volusiano, one of the pagans, replies that "the senses cannot be separated from the spirit. On the contrary, it is the senses which express the spirit. And in them lives beauty, strength . . . while your sculpture seems to belong to a world that is not ours" (p. 255). In a later scene Volusiano convincingly points out that the Christians "say that they love their neighbor, but then they teach that one should hate his beauty, his joy, his pleasure. There is no need for [the Christians]. Rome has always proven faithful to man and his virtues. Have we ever dared to say that the nature of man is spoiled, sick, and wounded, as if by a mysterious sin? The Christians teach this! It is right to persecute them, accusing them of misanthropy!" (p. 267).

Volusiano also points out that, while Rome always respected different religions, the intolerant Christians are forever fighting each other over obscure points of doctrine. In all of these remarks, Rossellini is obviously trying to make the best case for the other side, and in the process he gives the spectator the sense that at least there was another side, and that no advances are made without losses. Nevertheless, these few scenes constitute a small part of the film when compared with the overwhelming teleology and historic inevitability of the rest of it. In fact, Augustine, earlier in the film, has already answered Volusiano's objections by claiming that "Christians do not denounce the arts, letters, music . . . nor do they deny history. They say only that by means of it, man must always see better inside himself the light and the word of God which was made flesh and came among us" (p. 256).

Another theme that accords well with the concerns of Acts of the Apostles and, as we shall see, with The Messiah , Rossellini's last film, is the question of law. As in the earlier film, the uniqueness of Christianity is seen to lie in its different attitude toward this subject. So when Augustine is asked to preside over a civil case, he insists that justice is more important than mere legality. (The dramatic potential of this Solomon-like situation is abruptly deflated when it ends with one of the litigants deciding to go to the civil court after all—in effect, completely canceling the scene—because he does not agree with Augustine's verdict.) In another scene a Roman magistrate who is also a Christian wants to keep his private morality of turning the other cheek separate from his public and legal duty to be harsh. He wants to know, "How could the State survive if those who served it acted as Christians? If judges repaid the evil of thieves with good? If the generals gave the sackers of one Roman province another province?" Augustine convinces him that the law is "one" and that a Christian cannot make this kind of division: "The law of love does not make you weak, but strong, yet without wickedness and violence, and it would also make the State and the empire strong. . . . Morality is one, as God is one, as the conscience is one" (p. 273).

As usual, the film is also concerned with recreating the actuality of contemporary life: hence, we learn of various interesting customs of the early church, the relation of Church and State, and work and rituals of daily living.[3] Early in the film, for example, we cut to a giant pit in which fabric is being dyed, and the


brilliant colors (of Christianity?) offer an overwhelming counterpoint to the bleak Roman ruins in the background. Again, the accent is on how things were done, even at the expense of the already minimal narrative and the characters who are kept in long shot, and who are thus seen only in relation to the pit. Technical strategies are also repeated and refined in this film, as, for example, when the camera appears to seek out the reluctant Augustine after Valerius, the Bishop of Hippo, names him as his successor. (It does seem too much, however, to identify the camera in this scene with destiny, as some critics have.) The thematic play between light and dark found in Pascal continues here as well, as when Augustine departs for his new diocese, and a long-take shot of a narrow, but brightly lit, street nicely focuses our attention. Augustine walks away from us and from his home and everything that is known, and once he has disappeared, a young boy runs the entire length of the alley, in the same direction, as if to further underline its vanishing point. Then the film cuts suddenly to a dark street from which Augustine emerges toward the unknown future that awaits him.

What is most striking in the film, however, is its overwhelming emphasis on the simple and the direct. The highly emotional music of Pascal is here greatly restrained, and because most of the film was shot in the Roman and Greek ruins of Pompeii, Paestum, and Herculaneum,[4] with their inherent understatement, the film achieves a new visual spareness as well. Furthermore, in his composition, color, and general mise-en-scène, Rossellini is once again, as in Francesco , consciously emulating the art of the period, which in this case, of course, consists of spare, abstract, highly stylized mosaics and frescoes. (Many scenes, in fact, are shot with these as background, making the kind of overt connections to visual art that will continue with the Renaissance tapestries and canvases of The Age of the Medici , Rossellini's next film.) The visual simplicity and directness correlate perfectly with Augustine's—and Rossellini's—insistence on truth and unity and the possibility of achieving them. The Catholic Trasatti, significantly, is overjoyed to report that this is "one of the least distanced" of the director's films and that in it "religious inspiration reaches its peak, and the thousand doubts typical of Rossellini's poetic world assume the contours of certainty."[5]

This new simplicity has its source, perhaps, in Rossellini's ever more dogged attempt to find an essential form to match his ongoing essentialist themes. Thus, following a screening of this film, he told the audience, "I have just discovered the great possibilities of the image. We all use it, but we don't know how to use it as an essential style that can attain everything."[6] In a talk at New York University in 1973, he elaborated this new idea of the "essential image":

All knowledge begins with the eyes, although the freshness of our earliest perceptions is soon clouded. Language and ideas are always preceded by our perceptual structuring of existence. My primary aim is to recapture the tremendous innocence of the original glance, the very first image that appeared to our eyes. I am always searching for what I call the "essential image." Such an image may be considered to be a truly materialist one, for it places itself beyond the reach of conceptual or verbal expectations. With the exception of Godard and a few others, this materialist type of cinema is an unexplored territory. Most films are made up of what I call "illustrations." The "essential



The "essential image," doubled: Saint Augustine (Dary Berkany) as bishop
in Augustine of Hippo  (1972).

image" is totally opposed to the "illustration," which is an image that is determined by various conscious and unconscious preconceptions. Even at 66, I am still excited by the mystery of the "essential image."[7]

This new emphasis is immensely important, especially given Rossellini's lifelong denigration of the image and self-conscious composition. Furthermore, in view of the incredible preponderance of words in these historical films, these remarks (and many others like them) are clearly intended as a defensive maneuver to disarm critics of the films' "talkiness." Mostly, though, Rossellini seems to be indulging in the old neorealist dream—which he had earlier seemed to doubt—of an unmediated view onto the essence of reality, this time by means of an image that would come before language and therefore before difference. What he does not want to see is that all meaning is constituted differentially, not only the meaning associated with verbal language, and thus can only be understood in terms of what it is opposed to in a preexistent structure or system. And this includes perception as well: as soon as we begin to make out objects, we are applying our previous (unconscious) knowledge of perceptual and cultural codes—which are also languages—to create meaning. Rossellini's phrase "perceptual structuring" seems to grant this, but its idealist bias is clear when he equates it with "the tremendous innocence of the original glance." By definition, "the very


first image that appeared to our eyes" would be incomprehensible if we had no context in which to place it, no way of understanding it in terms of an already existent system. (Thus Rossellini's invocation of Godard and his claim that the essential image is "a truly materialist one" are not to be taken seriously.) The familiar nostalgia Rossellini expresses for lost origins, for a pristine Words-worthian moment of innocence before the "freshness of our earliest perceptions is . . . clouded" is not unlike Augustine's religious impulse toward a prelapsarian unity, a oneness, a fullness of being, which he locates in the Church.[8]


34— Augustine of Hippo (1972)

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