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Introduction to the History Films

"Illibatezza" closes a certain chapter in Rossellini's career; apart from the last two films he ever made, Anno uno and The Messiah —which, though intended for theatrical release and shot in a wide-screen format, do not differ essentially from the previous decade's work for television—he was never to return to the commercial cinema. His always minimal interest in telling a "good story" is now gone completely, and his first priority becomes the production of information to aid human beings in becoming more rational, an impulse already at work as early as India .

Rossellini will now expunge whatever remains in him of the mystical and the spiritual in favor of the reconstruction of history. In the facilely symbolic terms mentioned earlier, it could be said that he once and for all leaves the Franciscan Middle Ages for the world of the Renaissance where, in theory at least, reason is king. It is therefore no coincidence that one of the major achievements of this period is the three-part series on the Age of the Medici. Even the historical films concerning other eras are informed by a cool Renaissance rationality that assumes a discoverable order in the universe, a cosmos in which all is inevitably centered on human beings and their ability to make sense of things and, in so doing, to master their world.

Unfortunately, it will not be possible to provide close readings of all the didactic films, principally because of their sheer massiveness: L'età del ferro is five hours long, La lotta dell'uomo per la sua sopravvivenza , twelve, Acts of the Apostles , six, and so on. In the face of this immense output, one can only hope to sketch out a general project and a particular way of seeing history and humankind. Another factor is that after Acts of the Apostles (1969) Rossellini's


style or technique, his way of organizing his material, does not substantially change. There is some experimentation in the beginning—L'età del ferro , for example, is part documentary and part fiction film, set both in the past and in the present—but with the universally admired La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966), Rossellini seems to have settled definitively on the format of the "great man" who is examined as a representative of his age, usually an age in which, according to the director, some profound change occurred in the history of human consciousness. The purpose of the present chapter, therefore, will be to discuss what these films have in common; differences will be left for later.

What also becomes important in this period are the director's writings, which include a great many articles, two books, and an enormous number of interviews (which were, for Rossellini, another form of writing, another way to get his message across). In the 1962 interview with the editors of Cahiers du cinéma , Rossellini, at the lowest point in his creative life, seems to have considered giving up film altogether since it "is incapable of establishing general ideas and discussing them because it is too expensive." He is convinced, at this moment at least, that "the book is still the basis of everything." Since he has nothing left to say with film, he will begin writing essays, no matter how difficult it is, as a way to engage "the world, in order to be able to study it, to understand it."[1] A short time later, of course, Rossellini will find the perfect medium—the didactic, essayistic film made for television—and his interest in the cinema will be reawakened. But it will be a cinema of an altogether different sort.

One of the earliest statements of his changing ideas comes in a 1959 open letter to the new minister of culture, Signor Tupini. In it Rossellini poses the basic question: "Will the cinema be considered on the level of art and culture or as a means of squalid escapism and the infantilizing of the public on the same level as television, for which the government is seriously responsible?" (This clear-cut placement of film, art, and culture on one side and an "infantilizing" television on the other will soon be modified.)[2] In his first real essay, "Un nuovo corso per il cinema italiano" (A New Direction for Italian Cinema; 1961), Rossellini attacks education for having sold out to specialization, forgetting the whole person. Culture has become a "pseudoculture" that does not represent the expression of an individual artist but is "manipulated by technicians to placate in different ways the anxiety of the masses," who are crushed by "the insistence on orthodoxy, obedience, and blind faith in the elite." These products of the pseudoculture are addressed simultaneously to children and adults, Rossellini complains, with the result that the former grow up too fast and the latter are kept in a state of childish conformity in which they want to be "maternally protected" by strong leaders.

Is there a way out of this mass conditioning? Rossellini suggests that, because half the world is illiterate and people learn best through audiovisual means, the mass media must become vehicles for the spread of "ideas and information which will allow man to begin to understand the complex world to which he belongs." Human beings are naturally curious and if offered mental stimulation will accept it gladly. Why do we not "feel a profound emotional impulse contemplating the conquests that man has achieved in the last two centuries?" he asks.


We need to spread among the masses the true essence of the great discoveries and of modern technology. . . . Doing this, we will help the large masses find themselves in the new world. . . . In order to rediscover man we must be humble, we must see him as he is and not as we would like him to be according to predetermined ideologies, and this, it seems to me, was one of the merits of the neorealist cinema.[3]

In another open letter, this time addressed to Senator Renzo Helfer, the undersecretary for the arts, Rossellini inveighs against the "false problems" of sexuality, loneliness, and juvenile delinquency.[4] But, as he maintains in the important Cahiers du cinéma interview in 1962, "education" is not the answer either: "I reject education. Education includes the idea of leading, directing, conditioning, whereas we must search for truth in an infinitely freer way. The important thing is to inform, to instruct, but it's not important to educate."[5] What lies behind this seemingly frivolous distinction between education and instruction is Rossellini's firm, and apparently untroubled, view that pure information, pure knowledge, can be conveyed neutrally. And where is information most pure? In science, of course, and thus his future project will be "to try to see with new eyes the world in which we live, to try to discover how it is organized scientifically. To see it. Not emotionally, not through intuition, but in its totality and with the greatest exactitude possible. What our civilization has given us is the possibility of conducting a scientific investigation, of examining things deeply in scientific terms, in other words, in such a way that errors, theoretically, can be avoided if the investigation is properly conducted. Today we have the means for working in this way, and it is here that we must begin to take up a new discourse" (p. 10).[6]

He compares his work to that of the encyclopédistes of the eighteenth century, but when asked if it "will have as its goal the destruction of the present capitalist world" (a question that surely must have been asked tongue in cheek), Rossellini responds that he does not know what the outcome of his work will be, but that he certainly does not want to "play at being a revolutionary" (p. 12). In any case, his work will be easier than that of the encyclopédistes , he says, for we now live in an age in which science is universally respected, and "a scientific world must logically produce scientific solutions" (p. 12).

What is especially interesting is that, at the time of this 1962 Cahiers du cinéma interview, Rossellini's creative fortunes were at their lowest point and, as we have seen, he had begun to distrust cinema itself. It has failed to become the art of our century, it has in fact been one of the chief causes of our present sad state, but even more fundamentally, its very nature seems to have kept it from dealing adequately with general ideas. He maintains that, as it stands now, the cinema only allows for small variations within a basically standardized product. Nevertheless, if the cinema is not useful for reopening the great debate, it still will have its function as documentation:

Film should be a means like any other, perhaps more valuable than any other, of writing history and of keeping the traces of societies which are about to disappear. Since, more than any other means of transcribing reality that we currently possess, today we have the image which shows us people as they are, with what they do and say. The protagonists of History are photographed


with their voices, and it is important to know, not only what they say, but also how they say it. Now, the means which film possesses have sometimes been used for propaganda, but have never been used scientifically (pp. 13–14).

It is significant that, in the context of the "scientific" (or historical) film, Rossellini once again seems able to believe in the power of cinema to "show us people as they are." Increasingly, in other words, his earlier misgivings about the realist aesthetic seem to become displaced onto fiction films alone.

By 1963 Rossellini's ambivalent feelings concerning the visual image are completely gone. Geography and science can be much better taught through audio-visual means, he now decides; "The image can remove abstraction, analysis, and dogmatism from material which is primarily literary in content." Now he believes that words should be left to experts and specialists. Outlining what becomes essentially his own program, he says that with film we can finally understand history not as a series of dates and battles, but socially, politically, and economically. Above all, "Certain characters, psychologically reexamined, can become, through their human qualities, models of action." Seeing is now so highly privileged for him that it becomes the equivalent of understanding: "It is not a matter of giving up the pedagogical virtues of the scholastic tradition, but of giving them a new style, which is the style of those who are able to see, and therefore to understand."[7] In remarks made on a 1972 panel examining the state of Italian television, which were published in a book called Informazione democrazia , Rossellini moves even further toward a concept of pure, direct vision, to which he will later devote an entire book:

Images, with their naked purity, directly demonstrative, can show us the road to take in order to orient ourselves with the greatest possible knowledge. . . . All of our intelligence, as we know, expresses itself thanks to the eyes. Language, this human conquest which has justly been divinized (it is said that God is the Word), is the ensemble of the phonetic images by means of which, not being able to fix and save the images, we have catalogued all of our observations, the great majority of which are visual. [Language] has allowed us to express our intelligence by discerning, classifying, and connecting. Today, finally, we have the images; we have television, we have the RAI.[8]

What is noteworthy here is Rossellini's choice of words: "naked purity," "directly demonstrative." This is nostalgia for a pure, whole presence—with a vengeance. In this scheme, pictures speak directly, naturally, without mediation, and language was invented as an afterthought, little more than a poor filing system even if divinized, merely to be able to catalog and fix permanently what our eyes have already taught us. Again, what Derrida has called the logic of the supplement is at work here, for this impure language that Rossellini describes, this language that represents a falling away from the plenitude of the visual image, is paradoxically the only way, structurally and historically, in which that pure vision vouchsafed to us could be preserved or even expressed. Now that the RAI (Radio-televisione italiana ) has restored the image to us, however, meaning will once again be direct, unproblematic, safe from the play of difference. What the director wants to forget is that, since this image is always a representation itself,


it must employ prior conventions of representation to be understood: in short, images speak a language too.

In a 1963 essay Rossellini expresses the familiar romantic desire to "reexamine everything from the beginning," without asking whether such a return to a moment of pure origin is ever possible. Neorealism is looked back upon fondly as an example of this "starting from zero," completely free from "false intellectualism." We must examine everything in its "origins" and, like a schoolteacher, "try to tell the story of the great events of nature and history in the simplest and most linear fashion." Rossellini fails to see that linearity itself is already an interpretation of history. He insists that "we have to begin the discourse from the very beginning, from the first letter of the alphabet." But can we have a "first" letter without already having all the others, too? Over and over, Rossellini expresses a need to go back to "data that is impossible to confute,"[9] presumably to find—or construct—a ground that will not give way.

What we need now, the director tells us, is a cinema that is "didactic, also in the Brechtian sense."[10] The entire structure of filmmaking must be remade in the light of this new function, and all fancy technique must be forsworn in the interest of making films as cheaply as possible. What is especially annoying to Rossellini is the refusal of modern art to deal with contemporary industrial and technological reality. In 1965 he outlined to Aprà and Ponzi "the overwhelming victory of man over nature":

But tell me who has been moved by it, what artists have dwelt on this amazing fact, which is at least equal to the discovery of fire, in fact greater. . . . Above all you have to take the reins of this civilization and be able to drive it towards ends that have to be thought out quite clearly and precisely. But instead, strangely enough, as science and technology advance—and I mean science and technology in the highest sense, the sense of knowledge which is human in its very fibre—art abandons itself to daydreams in the most irrational way imaginable. You build a rational world and the whole of art takes off into fantasy.[11]

Above all, as Rossellini tells Cahiers du cinéma in another interview in 1963, this new reality must be regarded from a "moral position," a phrase that recalls his earliest formulation of neorealism. And whence comes this moral position? From love and tenderness, which is lacking in most forms of modern art such as the nouveau roman and contemporary painting, which only make man even more infantile with their constant complaining:

Today, you know you are in the avant-garde if you are complaining. But complaining is not criticizing, which is already a moral position. From the moment you discover that someone can drown if he falls in the water, and then you throw people in the water every day to see this abominable and terrible thing, that is, that the people you throw in the water can drown, I find that absolutely ignoble. But if, when I've realized that the people who've fallen in the water are drowning, I begin to learn how to swim so that I can jump in the water and save them, that's something different. And that's what caused me to give up making films, as I told you last year.[12]


He no longer cares about "making art"; rather, he wishes to become "useful." He explicitly rejects the role of artist in favor of that of craftsman.

For Rossellini, the art of our century has shamefully neglected to confront its great (and obvious) subject. How much have we tried to understand science from a moral point of view, "in order to penetrate it, to participate in it, and to find in it all the sources of emotion necessary to create an art?" In an earlier era, artists were directly involved in the development of man's consciousness. Men like Leon Battista Alberti (the Renaissance figure who appears in several of the films to come) saw no conflict between art and science, and insisted upon the importance of mathematical perspective and anatomy to architecture and painting. These artists "were able to plunge into a scientific reality, appropriate it, rethink it and bring it up to the rank of a superior art." Nor does Rossellini mean that all art must become figurative and literal again, for understanding can be expressed abstractly as well, and the true artist "can, with a single, pure, bare, abstract line give you the emotion that comes from his knowledge."

And how will Rossellini himself contribute to the elaboration of his ideas?

The next film I make . . . but I don't want to call it a film, because it must not be of the cinema. Let's say "I'll put on film" the history of iron. Does that seem ridiculous to you? A guy who begins to do the history of iron, that's ridiculous. But I want to offer myself not as an artist, but as a pedagogue. And there will be so many extraordinary things, which will give you such a quantity of emotions, that, while I won't be an artist, I'm sure that I will lead someone to art.[13]

As we have already seen, Rossellini's pedagogical project raises many epistemological and historical questions that, more often than not, he refused to consider as seriously as he should have. His charm and unshakable certainty about what he was doing led most of his many interviewers, unfortunately, to be lenient with him, retreating in the face of what sometimes even becomes dogmatic assertion. But the questions remain, and they are not all of a theoretical order.

The first, rather minor, problem is to ascertain just who is the "author" of these films. L'età del ferro and La lotta dell'uomo per la sua sopravvivenza , after all, were directed—at least according to the credits—by Rossellini's son Renzo, who had been working with him as an assistant on the set since General della Rovere .[14] Rossellini was fond of shocking interviewers by telling them that the famous solitary banquet scene in Louis XIV was actually filmed by Renzo while the elder Rossellini was visiting his daughter Isabella in the hospital. (One strategy here, of course, was to demystify the idea of the creative artist in favor of the skilled craftsman.) Elsewhere, when questioned closely concerning the particulars of L'età del ferro , he replied, "Look, I did very little. My son Renzo did it all, he's the director. I only thought the idea up."[15] But then he goes on to explain in great detail what were, in effect, his artistic choices. The simple truth is that no matter what he might have said to the contrary, these are his films. He conceived, researched, wrote, and produced them. Renzo had, in fact, so totally absorbed his father's methods by this point that he was


in effect simply able to substitute for him without missing an artistic beat; nor did he make any measurable personal impact on these films himself. As Rossellini had been saying as early as the postwar period, most of the actual shooting bored him terrifically; now, with a grown-up son, he had found the perfect solution to the tedium of day-to-day filmmaking.[16]

The plan for the filming of L'età del ferro , for example, was for the father to write a screenplay of sorts in blocks of three or four days, which Renzo would then shoot while Rossellini père stayed at home working on the next section of script. As Renzo explained to me in 1979, however, the situation was not a happy one for him:

It was a perfect collaboration but it had its limits. I had to copy his manner of filming exactly. I had to conform my filming to his style, which was not mine. And because there was such a difference in age between us, naturally our visions were different. I would have wanted to develop the spontaneity of the takes, because for one thing I had a lot more enthusiasm for the medium. Instead I had to be very cold and distant. And the tiniest details could seem to him like giving in to the worst kind of formalism. To give you an example from L'età del ferro: At one point, the metalworker looks into the German truck to see what is inside. He pedals on a little further, then looks again and sees something. Well, the fact that I shot the sequence this way became such a big deal! My father said it was out of Buster Keaton, something from the thirties American film, a "double-take"! After all, he said, when somebody looks, he looks, and that's it. How terrible. This tiny little detail of the fiction, interpretive if you will, was for him absolutely unbearable. I enjoyed telling stories, therefore coloring them a bit, to add elements of fantasy to the story, to work with the actors, to be more what he always deprecatingly called a "cinematografaro." I wanted to use all the different means available to cinema, which seems natural in someone who loved the cinema so much. He thought all of this was "formalism." And so most of our arguments stemmed from this basic conflict, a conflict of form. I felt frustrated that I couldn't give it all that I wanted to. Instead, I had to copy perfectly his style [calligrafia ]. This kind of thing made me eventually decide not to work with him any more, though I did shoot about twenty percent of Louis XIV and a lot, more than sixty percent, of the Acts of the Apostles .

Even these, then, must be considered his father's films.

Another, more complicated question about this new work for television concerns the formal relation between it and Rossellini's previous work destined for theatrical release. Now that he had denounced commercial filmmaking, it seemed important to him to insist that there was absolutely no difference in the two media. It is a commonplace in film theory that the spectator's psychological relationship to the larger-than-life theater screen is quite different from his or her relationship to the tiny screen that is looked at and can be walked around. The quintessential medium of the close-up, television generally foregoes the extreme long shot because it is simply too difficult to decipher. In an interview that appeared in Filmcritica in August 1968, however, Rossellini insisted on focusing solely on the economic differences between television and film, preferring television because it allowed more experimentation. When questioned about the formal or technical differences between the two media, he fell back


on a fatuous analogy that the ideas of an essay will be the same whether it is published in a paperback or a deluxe edition: "The important thing is to say it. I've never had these aestheticizing worries; I'm completely devoid of prejudices from this point of view." Rossellini's other views on the subject are impressionistic and hardly provable, but are provocative nonetheless. Thus, further along in the interview, he claims that television is probably a better medium than theatrical film because spectators view the latter with "mass psychology," while, with television, "the (critical) spirit of the individual is more accentuated."[17] In the early seventies, Rossellini was again pushed on this point when an interviewer insisted that the "reading time" of each medium was different, and since the television screen was smaller, it was read more quickly. Rossellini responded:

I think it's slower. That is, the image that you get in the cinema is so powerful that it just jumps on you: therefore you more or less get it all in one impression. That of the television, which is much smaller and more reduced, must be analyzed in order to get an impression. So the process is different, and the time of reading television is longer than that for the cinema. But I don't pay any attention to it anyway.[18]

One last minor question concerning Rossellini's didactic project—and one that inevitably leads to subjective considerations—is that of audience interest. Rossellini clearly meant to address these films to a mass audience of nonintellectuals, and it must be asked whether they have ever been successful in that regard. Except for L'età del ferro , which, as we shall see, makes its own kind of concessions in the quest for a popular audience, most average audiences, one suspects, would find these films so lacking in action, either physical or emotional, as to be virtually unwatchable. Even intellectuals supposedly inured to this kind of thing have found Rossellini's television films trying, and while some avantgarde critics have called them the harbingers of a totally new and revolutionary cinema practice, others, like the redoubtable Richard Roud, who greatly admires the hardly action-filled work of Straub and Huillet, has said, "I find Rosselini's historical works something of a bore."[19] Obviously, this is a question that can only be answered individually.

Without a doubt the most important problem connected with the history films, however, as we have already seen, is Rossellini's apparently complete faith in his ability to present "pure information" about history, science, and technology. He never seems to have fully understood (or to have wanted to understand) that information is always and inevitably constructed from a given point of view. James Roy MacBean, in his discussion of Louis XIV , thinks that Rossellini's claim to be involved in "pure research" is "possibly disingenuous": "In denying any political intentions, he speaks of the need to 'demystify history' and to 'get at simple facts'; but it hardly seems possible that he is unaware of the essentially political nature of the act of demystifying history."[20] Goffredo Fofi has summarized the situation well in saying that "what is important to him is the research but not the method of the research, and his presumed lack of ideology is the most mystified and conditioned form of ideology which exists.[21] Again, Rossellini is acting as Barthes' bourgeois man who finds the world natural, but confused;


clear away the unnecessary confusion, and a direct perspective on the facts will be possible. He seems to have given up his earlier view that reality could be represented only subjectively, now insisting on the possibility of accurately representing the past. But since history is commonly taken as something fixed and "finished," unlike present reality, perhaps he had no other choice: admitting that our view of the past is always constructed, the product of a point of view, would simply have been too radical a step and would have undermined the entire project. Furthermore, as we shall see in later chapters, this epistemological certainty about history is crucial to Rossellini's project and has wide implications concerning the relation of capitalism, visual perspective, Renaissance humanism, and a great many other matters.

Perhaps Rossellini's most straightforward statement of his philosophy was made during a 1966 interview with Cahiers du cinéma .

CAHIERS: Do you believe in using ideologies as working hypotheses? For example, Marxism as a method of historical knowledge?

ROSSELLINI: No. You have to know things outside of all ideologies. Every ideology is a prism.

CAHIERS: Do you believe that one can see without one of these prisms?

ROSSELLINI: Yes, I believe so. If I didn't think so, I wouldn't have made my life so difficult.[22]

Another interviewer, some ten years later, was more persistent, and the exchange is worth quoting at length. When Rossellini told him that the plan of The Age of the Medici (1973) was to show the interrelation of humanism and mercantilism, Jacques Grant leapt forward:

That's what I mean when I say that your films take sides. Which also makes me believe that it's a stylistic matter. In the sense that you choose, from the lives of the characters which you put on the screen, very few events. For Louis XIV, you choose only those events which go in the direction of the taking of power by the bourgeoisie. The choices you make are obviously not innocent.

ROSSELLINI: What you just said is not taking sides. It's looking attentively at the givens. Taking sides means demonstrating a thesis.

GRANT: You say that because at this moment you only want to reason on the level of ideas. Taking sides means in reality choosing among the working of events. Let me ask my question in a different way: What is historical truth?

ROSSELLINI: It's the things which happened and which had led to certain effects.

GRANT: Therefore you choose your characters in terms of the important effects which they have had.

ROSSELLINI: Obviously.

GRANT: Which means that the careful realism you show in the historical films has a different meaning than the careful realism of your earlier films. Because in the earlier films, you showed a reality simply at the moment that it was happening, whereas in your historical films the reality shown serves to validate the effects. The choice of your objects becomes directly functional.

ROSSELLINI: You're wrong. They have the same role as in my other films. It is simply that they are less recognizable. It was the everyday of that given epoch.[23]


Despite the contradictions in Rossellini's position, however, it should be said in his defense that, as we have seen in the earlier "protohistorical" films like Francesco and Viva l'Italia! , the films themselves skirt the issue of historical accuracy by being adaptations of artifacts of the period (works of art, literary and historical documents) that exist in both the past and the present, rather than claiming to recreate the period itself. Furthermore, while it is true that these television films present the historical facts upon which they are based as natural and given, rather than the product of a certain perspective, they do not claim the same status for their representation of these facts. Anybody who has watched them will agree that one hardly identifies with the characters or becomes "caught up" in their plots. Nor could one claim that these cold, distanced films that reject personal drama and emotion nevertheless "place" the subject-spectator in exactly the same way that a classic Hollywood film does. To refuse to make distinctions here would make subject-positioning theories so general as to be useless. The evidence provided by the films themselves must also be taken in account. Thus, as we shall see, the heady and unstable mixture of L'età del ferro (part documentary, part lecture, part fiction film, part anthology), makes the film willy-nilly self-reflexive. The resulting lack of illusionism itself calls into question the natural stance implied in the "objective" compilation of facts, no matter what the director's overt intentions.[24]

The force of Rossellini's didactic project is vitiated by the obvious political and ideological problems surrounding it, but it is also important to understand the ways in which these films are successful. Above all, it is easy to forget, in an era like the present when most great Italian directors also work for television, how courageous Rossellini was to turn from the much more prestigious cinema to the mass media. (Pierre Leprohon, for example, sniffed at the time that "the medium to which he has turned is infinitely less subtle than the one he has deserted," without offering any specific examples.)[25] Rossellini's television films must also be examined in the context of the huge number of Italian "historical" films of the fifties and sixties. Typical of this period was the series of pictures based on the exploits of ancient figures like Ulysses and Hercules (who even unite, in one film, to fight the Philistines). Leprohon has said of these films, "Anachronisms and other errors become gags; and historical truth—if such a thing is even possible—becomes the least of the concerns of directors for whom character and plot are merely pretexts for unbridled fantasy."[26] In this light, the contradictions inherent in Rossellini's representation of history may seem less blameworthy.

At the very least, it is clear that these films often brilliantly depart from previous cinema practice, including Rossellini's own. One thing that sharply distinguishes them from conventional cinema, especially beginning with Louis XIV , is the reappearance of Rossellini's penchant for dedramatization, which now reaches its zenith. In these films, characters boldly foreground their words, paradoxically, by delivering them in a flattened, often completely uninflected way. Physical movement is also minimal, and the consequently static nature of most visual compositions tends to focus attention, like the words, on the ideas and historical forces at work. And Rossellini is resolutely uninterested in his figures' emotional or psychological lives; all potentially emotional encounters


are leveled, and there is little or no probing into an individual historical figure's character to discover the nature of his personal motivations.[27]

Claude Goretta's Les Chemins de l'exil , an excellent film on the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (which Rossellini had once contemplated making) is instructive in this regard. The advertising that accompanied this film upon its release in 1978 proclaimed that it was in "the great tradition of Rossellini's historical films," and to a certain extent, especially in comparison with most historical films, it is. For one thing, importance is laudably given to the development of Rousseau's ideas as well as to the contours of his life. The pace is slow and delightfully contemplative. But here the similarities end: the actor playing Rousseau situates himself clearly in the classic acting tradition, with abundant emotional expression, and Goretta has included many conventional character tics meant to "humanize" Rousseau. This is not wrong in itself, of course, but it is not Rossellini. Similarly, Goretta is quite obviously intent on the production of beautiful compositions and, much more than Rossellini, often allows themes to develop through the stylistic and iconographic content of the images themselves. Likewise, lighting is often extremely dramatic, and color is used extensively to heighten mood and emotion. Goretta's camera is itself so fluid and mobile that Rossellini surely would have considered it obtrusive. In spite of Goretta's increased commitment to Rousseau's ideas, in short, a great deal of emphasis is placed on Rousseau's personality as well, very much in the tradition of the Hollywood biography film. Yet while the audience is more involved emotionally in this film than it would be in a Rossellini film, it still manages to come away from it with a fairly comprehensive view of Rousseau as thinker and historically important figure.

Rossellini's increased emphasis on dedramatization and his refusal to create characters who would be convincing according to conventional codes of realism parallel his lack of interest in making viewers lose themselves in the diegetic space, making them feel that they are really there. Rather, a consistent yet unobtrusive, low-grade alienation effect pervades these films. Rossellini's mise-en-scène and his reconstructed sets attempt to be suggestive of a given historical period without actually trying to recreate it. In this way, the sets differ drastically, say, from Griffith's painstaking "historical facsimiles" in The Birth of a Nation . Nor is Rossellini's space crowded with the hustle and bustle of the DeMillean "cast of thousands." Instead, virtually all elements of the set are there for a specific reason: to convey an idea of the past era, or rather, to convey that particular era's ruling idea or ideas. The sets of Augustine of Hippo , for example, resemble line drawings rather than sumptuous historical paintings, since this bare-bones symbolic sketching, as opposed to realistic illusionism, fits perfectly with the general characteristics of early Christian art. In this way, as we shall see, many of these films attempt to recreate their eras in terms of the received visual images that have come down to us via the art of the period, enabling Rossellini once again to be complexly in the past and the present at the same time and also to suggest, self-reflexively, the source of our visual knowledge of the past.

Typically (except in Louis XIV , where sumptuous display is precisely the point), Rossellini contents himself with the minimal representation—usually


basic costumes and bare settings, chosen with a brilliant eye—which further foregrounds the idea that is being spoken. The reality Rossellini wants, despite his later insistence on the "directness" of the visual image, is, after all, in the words, both because they are "authentic," since they are taken from available historical sources whenever possible, and because what he wants to convey, finally, are ideas, which, whether he likes it or not, are in the words. Hence he is never tempted by a Belasco-like obsession for actual period detail. What he is looking for in all these films, once again, just as with his humans twenty years earlier, is always an essence .[28]

Having now considered in some depth the overall strengths and weaknesses of Rossellini's grand historical project, it is time that we move on to a discussion of the specific films themselves.


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]


La Lotta dell'Uomo per la Sua Sopravvivenza

Given the fact that the series was not aired until 1970 and 1971, most Rossellini filmographies quite properly list La lotta dell'uomo per la sua sopravvivenza (Man's Struggle for Survival) after La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966) and even after Atti degli apostoli (Acts of the Apostles, 1969). Yet, La lotta is actually much closer in plan, scope, and technique to L'età del ferro of 1964, and was, in fact, conceived at the same time. Many critics have been bothered by the apparent inconsistencies involved here. Why would Rossellini return to the marathon view of history after the success of the much smaller-scale Louis XIV? It is useful, therefore, to know that Louis XIV was initially thought of as a kind of interim project while the work on La lotta was at a standstill. (This, too, can be misleading, however, for evidence from later interviews shows that Rossellini probably would have preferred to alternate between large-scale and small-scale projects.) In 1979 Rossellini's son Renzo, who is listed as "director" of the series, explained the chronology to me in the following way:

Acts of the Apostles and La lotta are very closely linked, because practically speaking, we made Acts to be able to finish making La lotta . We were filming the [earlier series] in Egypt when the 1967 Arab-Israeli war broke out. We were able to get out in time, but we had to leave all of our equipment behind. We had no idea how we were going to be able to finish the series, which we had originally begun in 1964. Louis XIV was just a slight interruption. We had spent a total of three years filming La lotta , and were a million and a half dollars in debt for quite a few years because of it, so when we went to Tunisia to shoot Acts of the Apostles , we shot the end of La lotta , which was the part that we had had to leave in Egypt, at the same time.


An early irrigation system in  La lotta dell'uomo  (1964–70).

La lotta , in any case, is surely unique in the history of the cinema; never before had a major film director conceived and executed a project on such a grand scale. The entire series runs a staggering twelve hours (Guarner reports that each of the twelve episodes was originally ninety minutes long and was later edited!) and even outdoes the ambitious L'età del ferro by surveying the entire history of humanity, beginning with the appearance of the first true men and women. Along the way, nearly every important historical era is represented in this exciting, if inconsistent, series. According to Rossellini, human beings stepped from their prehuman state when they first began to probe the mysteries of life and death, ultimately coming to revere the burial sites of their forebears. From there developed the use of the mind for survival and, for Rossellini, a concomitant belief in the supernatural. The earliest episodes of La lotta thus center around the agricultural revolution and the matriarchy Rossellini believes was a natural consequence of the relation of women to fertility and the cycles of the moon. From there we move to astronomy and the discovery of the solar year, the Bronze Age, the first machines, the rise of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilization, the barbarian invasions, the advent of Islam, the Middle Ages (including the preservation of ancient learning and the founding of the great universities), the Renaissance, the beginning of science and technology, the invention of electricity, the telegraph, radio, right up to the present era of space travel itself. Along the way,


a surprising number of dramatizations show us such figures as Hippocrates, Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, and Gutenberg, all engaged in the struggle to advance human welfare. It is a breathtaking enterprise, perhaps one that could have been undertaken only by a man with the self-confidence and audacity of Roberto Rossellini.

A project of this sort would have to be gargantuan in terms of its support as well. Sergio Trasatti reports that the entire series cost over 800 million lire (well over a million dollars), with the RAI contributing 120 million lire and the French, Romanian, and Egyptian television networks financially involved as well. Certain of the medieval sequences, for example, were enormously costly, especially for a television production: the Crusades alone, according to Trasatti, required some eleven thousand extras. Since one of the prime reasons that Rossellini moved to television in the first place was financial, the expenditure of such huge sums presents something of an anomaly. In fact, Rossellini's production company was so strapped by the series' cost that he had to forgo accompanying his new television film Socrates to its premier at the 1970 Venice film festival. Instead, he went off to Latin America where he managed to interest several countries in showing the series on their networks.[1]

Rossellini later said that he wanted La lotta to provide "a sort of spinal cord to which I would attach the other productions."[2] Elsewhere, he described it as

a history of new ideas, of the difficulty of getting them accepted and the painfulness of accepting them. The whole of human history is a debate between the small handful of revolutionaries who make the future, and the conservatives, who are all those who feel nostalgia for the past and refuse to move forward. The film gives an outline of history—I think it's useful as a start, because school study programmes have degenerated so and don't meet modern needs. It gives me a kind of core around which I shall take certain key moments in history and study them in greater depth.[3]

As such, the new series was conceived as a complement to L'età del ferro and another fully planned series on the Industrial Revolution, which was never filmed.[4] Later in the same interview Rossellini outlined the specific relation of La lotta to L'età del ferro:

It's a matter of looking at history from different angles. La lotta is much more concerned with ideas, which are always related to technology as well. The agricultural revolution was a great advance for mankind, the first great revolution carried out by man, because from then on man was not so completely at the mercy of nature and began to use it to strengthen himself. He no longer feared nature and gradually embarked on the decisive conquest of it. L'età del ferro is more concerned with the development of technology. The technology of iron brought advancement, and changed men's way of looking at things.[5]

In terms of technique, La lotta is clearly a more confident step beyond the uncertain mixture of L'età del ferro . The earlier series' bricolage of dramatized scenes (both factual and fictional), documentary stock footage, and sequences from older films was a fascinating experiment whose enthusiasm compensated for its failures. With La lotta , however, the rough, if exciting, hodgepodge dis-


appears, and virtually all of the material, with the exception of the NASA stock footage of space travel, is presented in a dramatized narrative form, of either famous events or representative fictional details meant to convey the spirit of an age. The result is a slicker product, certainly, but I am not sure that Guarner is right to herald the abandonment of "archive material" as a definite advance in technique.[6]

Similarly, there seems to be much more attention being paid here to such formalist concerns, normally disdained by Rossellini, as composition and an aestheticized mise-en-scène. The color is also handled magnificently in the film—clearly a lesson learned from Louis XIV , with subtle pastels of green and brown and yellow, say, predominating in the episodes on early Egyptian civilization. Mario Nascimbene's music works well, moving, finally, beyond the limitations of Rossellini's brother's conventional Hollywood scoring. The Pancinor zoom orchestrates the choreography of every scene, and Rossellini is not afraid to shoot an entire lengthy sequence in one or two long takes. Onlookers explain to each other (and to us, of course) what is happening in each scene, as, for example, when the engineer describes the plan of the pyramids to the pharaoh. Individual frames sometimes even suggest the predominant art form of the period, though this device, which becomes increasingly important in the films focused on individual figures, is here naturally much more diffuse. The matte and mirror shots are also more convincing in La lotta , especially compared with the later films that were hampered by tiny budgets. (This would seem to indicate once again that any talk of Rossellini deliberately making the matte shots obvious simply misunderstands the director's own sense of professionalism.) Also, as we saw in L'età del ferro , Rossellini continually makes cross-references throughout the course of the series to remind us of the central motifs: thus, the burial and religious customs of many different civilizations are depicted, as well as the passing of power from one generation to the next, the use of water and machines, changing views of medicine, the advance of technology, and how ordinary things of the world like bread, glass, and paper come to be made.

Given the sheer size of the series, and the fact that the chances of it ever being seen in the United States (or elsewhere, for that matter) are quite small, I will have to limit myself to discussing in detail only one of the episodes. Since a polemic has developed most violently around the notion of matriarchy articulated in the opening episode, it will perhaps be best to concentrate our attention there.

The opening credits attempt to put what we are about to see, the earliest struggles of primitive humans, in the context of the present and the future so that we might marvel at how far we have come. Following obviously from the euphoria of the last episode of L'età del ferro , the credits are jazzy and hyped, and as we hear black Americans singing, we watch shots of New York skyscrapers and rockets blasting off into space. (For Rossellini, America is the principal locus of the energy of the new technology, and it is no accident that in the early seventies he was to work happily for a time at Rice University's Media Center with Houston's many scientists.) After the credits, the director himself comes on to emphasize how short a time humans have been in the ascendancy on the planet, an idea that has become by now something of a cliché, and that intelligence has


always been their greatest weapon. The first sequence, the Ice Age, opens with shots of snowy woods. A cold wind blows on the sound track and the voice-over (not Rossellini) explains, over the sound of a single violin note, what we are seeing, but without ever overexplaining. (Often the voice-over is completely silent, wisely letting the visual track speak for itself.) Cave dwellers appear, and we learn that humans have already survived four ice ages and that the sheer brutality of nature has made them move into the mutual protection provided by communal living. The discovery of fire and cooking follows quickly, along with hunting and animal keeping. The breasts of the actresses playing the cave women are exposed (something difficult to imagine on American television in the sixties), and this fact, along with the superb costumes and the lack of makeup for the women (another benefit of using nonprofessionals) makes these scenes seem less awkward than the standard depictions of prehistory. Human beings begin to gain the upper hand over their animal foes when, through the use of their intelligence, they disguise themselves as animals. A short night scene then shows us the benefits of an increased security: one of the men, because he has become more reflective about the mystery of the world, begins to draw on the walls of the cave, and art is born.

The next scenes of the first episode show the end of the Ice Age, men and women beginning to eat roots and berries, washing clothes, abandoning caves for shacks, and learning to make bread by milling grain with a stone. An entire set is constructed merely to show this last activity, a sequence that occupies no more than a few moments of footage; obviously, Rossellini's preference for television because of its economies did not prevent him, on occasion, from thinking big. No dialogue inflates the scene depicting the establishment of agriculture, and the sound track is occupied only with strange, but understated, electronic music that contrasts favorably with the exuberant, blaring score of L'età del ferro .

As in all of the history films to come, much time is spent on the supposedly insignificant details of everyday life: food preparation, work, and daily chores. Rossellini's intellectual proximity to the French annalistes school, which was beginning to flourish at this time, thus also becomes clear. Similar to his use of temps mort in the earlier fiction films, the accent in the history films will be on downplaying the "grand events" in order to concentrate on ordinary life. This is the essence of Rossellini's historical method: the selection of revealing, though seemingly minor, details that are meant to represent, synecdochically, the consciousness of an age. The director himself provides an example in several interviews: a vizir who runs a gold mine far from any water source finds that his workers and animals are dying so fast that the mine is not productive. He goes to the pharaoh, who was considered the equivalent to a god, and asks for a miracle. The pharaoh logically declares that the vizir should take ten thousand men and dig a canal from the Nile to the mine; to us simply logical, but the vizir is astonished and calls the idea a "miracle." Rossellini's comment is that "through a thing like that you can discover the proportions of a civilization much more than any other sort of thing."[7]

The principal purpose of deemphasizing the grand events is, once again, to establish an essence of human nature. Rossellini would later explain:


In general, books of history tell us about the main events. History was also written to glorify power. But the real history is to discover man, the simple man whose life was never written. The research made in the last years is great in this sense, now you can find out a lot. History is the history of human beings who are like us, only chronologically at another moment in time. We have some knowledge and what we do now [sic]? That is the continued struggle of man.[8]

Thus, the director dedramatizes history partly for Brechtian purposes, so that the spectator may watch intelligently and understand the issues rather than being involved emotionally with the character. But more importantly, this is how one arrives at the human essence. True, we must be scrupulous about historical specificity, but we will inevitably find that "history is the history of human beings who are like us."

The focus of the first episode now turns toward the establishment of the matriarchy: since man's role in reproduction is unknown at this point, the fertility of the woman, the source of all life to an agricultural people, becomes exalted. A lovely sequence, enhanced by a perfectly executed zoom shot, shows the queen giving herself over to the power of the water so that she may become fecund. The role of the male changes when his part in reproduction becomes better understood, but the prestige still belongs to the woman: the consort must wear artificial breasts when he gives orders, and later he is ritually slaughtered so that his blood may fertilize the soil. Once astronomy begins in earnest, however, and solar time is privileged over lunar time (the latter associated with women), the male's ascendancy begins. As Rossellini later described it: "At the moment when the Hellenes, who had their own gods and were not agricultural people but shepherds, came from the East to the Mediterranean area, it became a patriarchal society. All Greek mythology is an explanation of what happened during that change from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society."[9] The first episode of the series ends at this point.

The utterly sweeping nature of Rossellini's generalization about the establishment of the patriarchy is indicative of his overall approach to history in this omnibus series. With the conviction of the autodidact, he is able to state categorically the single cause of an enormously complicated system of beliefs and cultural practices. On the other hand, it is true that the cautious steps of the scholar would be out of place when it comes to making a television series on the history of the world. In any case, for Rossellini the message was clear: given all that we humans have accomplished in the infinitesimal time we have occupied the planet since it first came into being, we must not give in to the naysayers and complainers who preach alienation. Instead, we should feel hopeful that we can and will solve the problems that confront us today. What Rossellini has perhaps forgotten in his enormous optimism in human potential, however, is that the movement of technology has developed a life and trajectory of its own, which human beings no longer seem to control. It could also be objected that the vast majority of new technological developments, as Paul Goodman pointed out years ago, have come about to rectify the problems caused by previous applications of technology.

More serious is the problem of authenticity. Even the most intense Italian


supporter of Rossellini's television films, Sergio Trasatti, cannot help finding the undertaking so vast that a greater selectivity than usual is at work, with the result that the "objective and neutral" Rossellini is actually interposing himself more than ever. In Trasatti's words, it is "not an accident that La lotta seems to be the most opinionated of all these films." Nor can Rossellini's historical representations be legitimatized by the claim that he is relying solely on the testimony of authentic sources. As Trasatti points out, "In this film, more than any other, one notes here and there an obvious embarrassment concerning the lack of sources, the difficulty of verification, the complexity of the cultural relations among different facts and problems."[10]

In a sense, then, it is in this series that the inherent contradictions of Rossellini's method are most visible. It is not, of course, that the questions concerning the possibility of objectivity and authenticity do not arise elsewhere as well, but in better-documented periods it is easier for the director to deny his own mediation by appealing to the historical record. Here, on the other hand, when one is depicting the very beginning of civilization and societal life, one may have recourse to "the latest scientific knowledge," but the tactic is transparent. (He will have exactly the opposite problem portraying the too-well-known recent history of Italy in Anno uno .) Rossellini is offering an interpretation of events, in other words, and an interpretation based on very sparse information indeed.

Thus, he is also vulnerable to disagreements with his depiction of humanity's origins. The Communist party organ L'Unità attacked the series, not surprisingly, for its "mystical vision of history and therefore, of man,"[11] and others have maintained that Rossellini's view of history in this series is at best simplistic. The theory of matriarchal society itself, based as it obviously is in religion, has come in for special attack by another writer for L'Unità , who applies to Rossellini Engels' answer to Bachofen, the first thinker to offer the matriarchal hypothesis: "It seems that for him religion represents the decisive lever of history."[12] In his book on Rossellini, Pio Baldelli has mounted a telling attack on this series, especially its depiction of the matriarchy. Baldelli complains that Rossellini neglects the division of labor and the "systems of kinship, the social and functional origin of systems of succession—through the maternal or the paternal line—the reasons for their evolution—by means of the incest taboo and successive exclusions of links between blood relatives—their relationship with changes in the economy: from collective property to private property."[13]

Unfortunately, Baldelli insists that Rossellini's problem is that he has failed to supply "the correct information," and thus the critic unwittingly demonstrates his own dogmatism. Nevertheless, in its main outlines, Baldelli's critique makes an important point; while Rossellini is right to simplify history in order to have the maximum effect on his mass audience, this is legitimate only if he shows himself to be "truly master of history, having digested it through study, long research, and consultations." For Baldelli this is precisely what is lacking, and in his refusal of analysis Rossellini "remains a prisoner of myth, beliefs, ritual, magic, and legends." It is clear, in any case, that a strong teleological sense of history is at work in the series, and Rossellini's depiction of the medieval era, for example, follows the conventional scenario of the horrid Middle Ages leading inexorably to the wonders of the Renaissance. As Baldelli astutely


points out, this depiction is based on "the (among other things, Eurocentric) selection conducted after the fact by bourgeois culture which recognizes as a cultural manifestation only what prepared the terrain of its birth and rejects whatever bears witness to a possible, different dimension of man."

Baldelli's comments are, for the most part, cogent and convincing. Nevertheless, while one would certainly have appreciated a true rethinking of history in this series, it must not be forgotten that Rossellini's project represents one of the very few times since the beginning of television that any coherent vision of history has been presented to viewers. Furthermore, the sheer massiveness of the undertaking is impressive. The history of the world in twelve hours: clearly a labor of love. Unfortunately, once again, it was a love that was not facilitated by the powers that be of the French and Italian television networks. In Italy, the first episode was shown at 9:15 P.M. on channel 1, on August 7, 1970, traditionally a time (immediately before one of the biggest Italian holidays of the year) of little television watching. The next five episodes continued throughout the vacation month of August and the first part of September against very popular competition. To make matters worse, only the first six episodes were shown during the summer of 1970, and the interested viewer had to wait over a year, until the fall of 1971, to see the last six episodes, which began on September 4 (with a further delay of two weeks between the third episode of September 25 and the fourth episode, shown on October 3). In competition with the series on Saturday night were two of the most popular television variety shows of the period, "Ciao Rita" and "Canzonissima"—for most viewers what Trasatti calls "the central appointment of the week." Rossellini's average audience for an episode was 1.3 million viewers (out of 10 million subscribers), and only 400,000 when opposite "Canzonissima," which was watched by over 26 million people at the same time.[14] Nor may we point a finger solely at the benighted Italians: Claude Beylie angrily noted in Écran that the series was shown in France at 6:00 P.M. during the slowest part of the summer, and then only in black and white.[15]


La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV

Originally conceived as an interim project, as we have seen, La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Rise to Power of Louis XIV, 1966) has since become Rossellini's most widely appreciated didactic film, often ranked with Paisan and Voyage to Italy as one of the greatest films of his career. This is all the more amazing when one realizes that the entire shooting was completed in some twenty-three or twenty-four days, working five hours a day. Postproduction, thanks to Rossellini's reliance on the zoom lens for in-camera editing, took only another few days, and the entire project was completed for about 100 million lire, or approximately $130,000.[1] Nonprofessional actors were used, reducing expense and avoiding the clunky phoniness that results when implausibly beautiful stars impersonate historical figures, but the film's sets and costumes, given the tiny budget, are surprisingly sophisticated. Money was also saved through Rossellini's standard, elaborate system of matte and mirror shots, enabling him to include, for example, a thoroughly "believable" scene of the building of Versailles.

In this film Rossellini turns for the first time to what was to become the standard formula for all of the historical-didactic films to come: focusing upon a single individual—always male—not so much for his own importance, but for his "representativeness." The grand sweep of L'età del ferro and La lotta , now that the main outlines of history have been sketched in, gives way to the more intense examination of historically specific periods.[2] (Again, though, Rossellini's insistence on the historical specifics of a given period must be seen in the context of his view of a basic, unchanging human nature.) What seems especially ironic is the fact that this first attempt is perhaps the most perfect. This may be be-


cause the intensely pictorial and "spectacular" film focuses expressly on Louis' seizure of power, which he accomplishes precisely through the mounting of spectacle; thus the medium itself is implicated thematically. Here the very idea of the film lies, for once, in its articulation of gesture and image, not in its words, as with virtually all the other didactic films.

Louis XIV opens with a static, painterly long shot of peasants at a dock across the river from a castle. This painterliness will continue throughout the film, and some interior scenes, especially, look forward to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon . In an important article on Louis XIV , the late Martin Walsh plausibly suggests Vermeer and Rembrandt.[3] He also convincingly maintains that the film's painterliness reduces its "degree of 'naive' realism" and suggests "the point of origin for our contemporary revisualization of a seventeenth century milieu."[4] Again, we can see that the film does not seek to represent the age directly, but rather to represent its prior representations.

In addition, the opening scene is important because, as James Roy MacBean has pointed out, it is the only scene that has been completely invented and because the peasants are virtually excluded from the rest of the film.[5] What they say is also significant, for they speak disparagingly of the English king who has just been beheaded, and briefly complain about the prerogatives of wealth and authority. Nevertheless, MacBean's insistence that this scene examines "the economic foundations and ideological overtones which enlist the common masses within the socioeconomic system of the French monarchy"[6] is a vast overstatement. Moreover, everything else in this film goes in the opposite direction, toward an ambiguous glorification of the king's accession to power through the manipulation of spectacle, and the peasant viewpoint is never heard again. It is clear that this scene was meant to serve as a kind of earthy counter to everything that follows, but during the next ninety minutes its exemplary force is completely overwhelmed.

In the following scene, doctors attend the dying Prime Minister Mazarin, the rather corrupt cardinal who has been the chief tutor of the young playboy King Louis XIV. Interestingly, the doctors see reality in terms of metaphor, rather than literally. When they debate whether or not to bleed Mazarin once more, one of them reasons that "the more bad water you take from the well, the purer it is; the more a mother feeds her baby, the more milk she has." Metaphors are important to Louis as well, and he delights in calling himself the "Sun King," from whom everything shall flow. This relation of the metaphoric to the literal nicely replicates the relation of appearance to reality, the film's central theme.

Finally, we are introduced to the king, but only after a long-take sequence showing his serving girl's morning chores. The ceremony of the levee, or king's rising, follows, the king mumbles through his prayers, and an obliging courtier explains to a fellow observer that the queen's handclapping signifies that the king has accomplished "his conjugal duty." The king goes to see the nearly moribund Mazarin, who, in a neat foreshadowing of Louis' later strategy to take control, spends a great deal of time applying makeup to look better for his sovereign. The king next asserts that he will take over the actual governance of the kingdom, but no one, including his mother, believes him until he refuses to let her attend council meetings. His chief assistant in this task will be Colbert,


The king (Jean-Marie Patte) attends the dying Mazarin (Silvagni)
in  La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV  (1966).

the son of a merchant and a palpable symbol of the rising middle class, who has great plans for the industrialization of France.

What follows is one of the more brilliant moments of the film, a Renoirean hunting sequence in which the camera follows a stag being chased by dogs at incredible speed. The scene ends when the king takes his mistress into the woods. His absence is filled by the plotting of Fouquet, his surintendant of finances, who refuses to take Louis seriously. Fouquet finally goes too far in attempting to bribe the king's mistress, and, in an elaborately staged arrest purposely undertaken for maximum theatrical effect in Fouquet's home base of Nantes, Louis removes him from the stage. The entire arrest is shot from a very high angle, exactly copying Louis' subjective point of view on the events; he and the camera seem to become complicitous in the elaboration of the double spectacle of politics and filmmaking. What Louis has realized, he says, is the truth of Fouquet's words: "Minds are governed more by appearances than by the deep nature of things."

From this moment on in the film, all interest centers on Louis' struggle to subjugate the nobles through the pleasures and burdens of spectacle. He purposely sets out to create a new, garishly elaborate style of dress, orders the nobles to live in his castle so they are completely in thrall to his disposition, and builds


Versailles on a deliberatively excessive scale. The culmination of this strategy comes when the king turns himself into a secular icon in a stunning scene in which he reveals his elaborate new dress, and the visual power of his presence coalesces perfectly with the power of film itself to create spectacle. A courtier who has not been able to keep up with the new fashions is made to feel utterly beyond the pale of civilization.

Perhaps the film's greatest moment of spectacle, however, is the famous banquet scene. Situated behind the ever-present spatially controlling table, the king eats alone, course after elaborate course, with his brother and other notables in attendance, serving, tasting the wine, unlocking "the king's meat," to which everyone in the kitchen has bowed on its way upstairs. Another dimension is added to the film's self-reflexivity in the kitchen as we follow the chef, who stands on a platform, directing every step of yet one more spectacle. When the king is served his wine, in another baroque ritual, the viewer also realizes the truth of Baldelli's observation that what we are watching is the "holy mass of absolute power." These shots continue for a long time, until we are as surfeited with the opulent display as the king himself must secretly be. He calls for music, a man of the court approaches the camera to execute his wishes, and, as the camera moves backward, we realize for the first time that this entire scene has been witnessed by hundreds of fawning courtiers—an audience, like us.

As the director has pointed out, it was actually his son Renzo who shot this sequence, since the elder Rossellini was visiting his hospitalized daughter Isabella in Italy. What Rossellini perhaps did not know about this scene was described to me by Renzo in 1979:

I used a little trick in that scene that I never dared confess to my father. Since I had to move back from the table, gradually discovering the crowd watching the king eat, I had to use a little dolly moving backward because I had to raise up to see their heads. This little dolly is something that he would absolutely never have used, because he thought it was totally vulgar. So I had to do the whole thing secretly, taking advantage of the fact that he wasn't in France at the time. The production director, who swore never to say a word about it, helped me to sneak the dolly onto the set. And my father never found out.

Though it is indeed possible Rossellini père never found out—he rarely reviewed his films—it is hard to imagine that in the editing process, at least, this very obvious dolly (the courtier walks so far forward, toward the receding camera, that the king finally disappears from the frame, an impossibility in a zoom shot) would have escaped his sharp eye. Perhaps the father was more indulgent than the son imagined.

In the final scene the king is promenading in his garden, his retinue trailing behind him. The music on the sound track, used sparingly and delicately throughout the film, now begins a melancholy plaint, and suddenly we become aware of the immense loneliness of power. The king is reading from a little book, which he takes inside with him, as his courtiers make way. Once inside he is, for the first time in the film, completely alone. He begins stripping himself of his gaudy finery, the coat, the grotesque wig, the bright sashes; there is no music


and no camera movement until, finally, he goes to the closet and puts on a coat of the plainest style. (During this sequence everyone else remains outside, presumably continuing the spectacle.) He sits down, and a deep sense of isolation seems to overtake him as he begins to read aloud maxims of the seventeenth-century moralist François de la Rochefoucauld. The second one is the enigmatic "Ni le soleil ni la mort se peuvent regarder fixement" (Neither the sun nor death can be looked at directly). Becoming pensive, the king closes the book as the camera zooms in. He repeats the maxim aloud. The music recommences, he picks up the book once more, and the film ends.

Many of the elements of Rossellini's technique that we have been tracing since the very beginning of his career reappear in Louis XIV , perhaps in their most fully realized form. The film is shot almost totally in plans-séquences made possible by the alternately static and dynamic Pancinor zoom lens, which moves easily from a close-up to a two-shot to a medium shot, all in the same take. (Even when a rare intercut reaction shot breaks the long take, it is clear that the basic shot was originally filmed without a pause, and therefore could have been even longer that it appears in the final version.) Nor is there any plot to speak of, as the above summary indicates, but rather seven or eight nearly self-contained episodes. If there is a single recurring dramatic element (beyond that of the idea of gaining power) that causes a kind of "suspense," pulling the viewer from episode to episode, it is manifested in the character of Fouquet, who refuses to believe that the king is serious about ruling directly, who tries to bribe the king's mistress, and whose brilliantly choreographed arrest constitutes whatever climax this film can be said to have. Similarly, Rossellini's penchant for dedramatization here reaches its zenith: the idea of the events, their historical significance, is what is dramatic and exciting, since the characters' dialogue, especially that of the king, is delivered in a rapid, clipped monotone that is utterly unconvincing in the normal sense of the word.[7] We are thus led to understand a historical process rather than to take sides with a character with whom we identify emotionally. This dynamic works especially well here because the film is not really about Louis XIV at all, but rather, as the proper translation of its title indicates, his taking of power. Thus, the interest revolves around a historical mechanism, a dynamic series of staged events aimed at a specific outcome, rather than around the fate of the character himself. In fact, the events portrayed in this film probably occupy fewer than ten pages of Philippe Erlanger's four-hundred-page biography of Louis, upon which the film was based. But these events, for Rossellini, are the most significant, for they constitute the first signs of the formation of the modern state and the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Even more radical is Rossellini's use of temps mort , for long moments are devoted to the supposedly "irrelevant" details of everyday life. Probably the most famous example of this is the long take of the king's servant, who, upon waking, opens shutters, takes out the king's clothes, folds her own pallet, all with such a natural, unhurried air that the famous tranche de vie kitchen scene of the maid in De Sica and Zavattini's Umberto D. (1952) comes to mind. The scene in Rossellini's film also correlates well with Louis' deadpan delivery, which Rossellini sees as being more authentic, and which serves to put events that are,


after all, merely retrospectively significant, on the same dramatic footing as the obviously mundane.[8] This technique also creates, especially in the beginning of the film, a great proliferation of details that compete for our attention. The king, who has not yet established himself as the sole source of power, is thus little more than another object, another piece of visual information. As he gradually gains in control, however, he seems to take over the very screen itself. By the end of the film, we see him alone: his conquest of power and, concurrently, of the cinematic space, is complete.

All of this can perhaps make Rossellini seem very Brechtian after all, but a great deal more has been claimed in this direction than is warranted. Because Rossellini, like Brecht, wants us to think about what we are seeing, and because the main action of the film, Louis' creation of spectacle to achieve his ends, so clearly parallels the director's own mise-en-scène, one can easily overstate, as does John Hughes, Rossellini's "critique of spectacle": "Such a critique is essential to the film's central purpose, which might be described as an attempt to discover a correlative in the cinema for what Brechtianism meant to the theater."[9] But Rossellini's self-reflexivity is never as total as Brecht's, and there is no real attempt to destroy illusionistic representation or to place it radically in question; instead, there is a kind of bemused pointing to it, for, at a basic level, Rossellini's commitment to illusionism is firm. In Brecht, as in Godard (who Hughes identifies too closely with Rossellini), spectacle and representation are revealed as constructions, which, like all human knowledge, are mediated and derive always from a particular point of view. Rossellini's ultimate project in the history films, on the other hand, is in some ways the very opposite of this: drama is eliminated, along with plot and emotional identification with the character, precisely to convince the viewer that what he is seeing is "pure," objective, historical truth, uncontaminated by the demands of the code of realism, unmediated and direct. The way this works in Louis XIV has been summed up by Martin Walsh:

Even while purporting to offer an intelligent examination of "spectacle," the film itself remains spectacular to a disturbing degree. The film may, as I have suggested, critique spectacle, yet (as James Leahy pointed out to me) LOUIS XIV remains "a process movie," the thrill of "how's he going to do it" shaping our fascination. Rossellini's work in the production of meaning is masked. Louis' manipulations hold stage-center throughout, and the result is that the viewer is "fixed in position" in his seat—victim of Louis' image, with no possibility for escape.[10]

This is a forceful and cogent critique, but it is by no means clear how a film that demonstrates Louis' fostering of spectacle can itself avoid being spectacular. The film's very power, in fact, seems to derive precisely from its hegemonic gesture, which seems to enlist the camera itself in Louis' project. In any case, Walsh is right to suggest that Rossellini's historical work is finally in the mainstream of "bourgeois art," whose main characteristic, according to many recent theorists, is the way it places the subject-spectator in a certain preestablished relationship with the text, thereby "constructing" this spectator as well. Just as Louis wants


to fix each of his subjects in a specific, controllable place, so, too, Walsh insists, "Rossellini's viewer is firmly chained in his/her situation as viewer and asked to accede uncritically to what Rossellini presents rather than actively engage in the production of meaning."[11]

Unlike in L'età del ferro and La lotta , Rossellini has not been charged with any "distortion" of history in this film, largely because its raw material has been drawn from Erlanger's prestigious biography. It is difficult to estimate the extent of Erlanger's contribution to the film (the credits list him as coscreenwriter), but Pio Baldelli goes too far when, seemingly anxious to belittle even Rossellini's triumphs, he insists that the success of Louis XIV is due entirely to the fact that French television had forced an "iron-clad" screenplay, by Erlanger, on the director. In point of fact, there is evidence that Erlanger's role was even smaller than the screenwriting he is credited with in the film.[12]

Whoever was responsible for the screenplay, it is undoubtedly true that most of the material came from Erlanger's biography, as well as most of the historical analysis. But the film contains a great deal less of the latter than some critics have claimed. For James Roy MacBean, the core of the film is its portrayal of the working relationship that develops between the king, who actually wants to return to a feudal society in which all power emanates from him, and his prime minister, Colbert, the draper's son who becomes the master draftsman of the transformation of the French nation into a modern bourgeois state. This may indeed be a correct analysis of the historical forces at work in seventeenth-century France; in no way, however, can a spectator arrive at this analysis from an untutored viewing of the film itself, as MacBean seems to suggest. The thoughtful spectator will, of course, be thinking about the French revolution that will take place 130 years later, which will demonstrate conclusively that Louis' successors were unable to follow his example,[13] but more historical awareness than this is hard to imagine. Nor does the film do anything to promote such a wider historical view. Naturally, the de-emphasis on character psychology opens up a wider space for the representation of "history" itself, but the space that is opened is that of the contemporary historical moment alone. The events portrayed are seen teleologically in terms of the desired result, the taking of power, but to understand the significance of these events, we must already know what the film itself does not tell us, namely that Louis was the first European sovereign in two hundred years to actually seek total control. Similarly, it is impossible to argue from the evidence of the film alone, as MacBean does, that Rossellini means to show that Louis' reign "is by no means a healthy, fruitful flowering of the French monarchy. Rather, it is simply the last flowering—dazzling in its sickly hues—of a dying plant artificially kept alive in a hothouse."[14] MacBean's larger claim, that this film is Marxist in method if not in name, since it "is exemplary in bringing to the movie screen, for once, the depiction of class struggle as the motor of history," seems vastly overstated. One can perhaps infer an operative notion of class warfare here, but the film's images and words almost exclusively concern the attempt of one aristocrat to wrest power from the others.

In a sense, Mario Verdone is closer to a proper understanding of the film's strategies when he stresses its anecdotal quality, finding a link with Prosper


Mérimée's "The Night of Saint Bartholomew," which he quotes: "I love the anecdote in history and among anecdotes I prefer those where I seem to find a true representation of the customs and characters of an epoch."[15] What neither Mérimée nor Rossellini ever ask, however, is precisely how one verifies this synecdochically produced historical truth. The result is another version of the hermeneutic circle: how does one know if one has a true representation, unless the true essence of an epoch is already known in advance? And where does such essential knowledge come from, if not precisely from prior anecdotes? In an important statement made in 1974, Rossellini insisted:

An historical event is an historical event. It has the same value as a tree or a butterfly or a mushroom. I don't choose the tree. I must get the tree which is there. There is not a choice of the tree. Not at all. I'm totally refusing all sort of aesthetic preconceived ideas, totally, totally, totally. That's the point. When you want to talk about something, you must know the thing. That's the point. When you know the thing well, you can say what is essential. When you don't know it well, you are lost in the middle of a lot of things which are impressive. I try to express the things which I think are essential. I refuse to accomplish any creative act.[16]

What is faulty here, of course, is the assumption that a tree and a historical event have the same ontological status, and that therefore they can be recognized, known, and described in equally unproblematic terms. But Rossellini needs this kind of simplification, again, to portray his search for the essence of an age as a neutral operation. This, in turn, always leads back to a grander transhistorical essentialist view of human beings. As he told the interviewer for Film Culture: "Man has not changed a great deal, it is the conditions that have changed."[17]

Louis XIV was first aired by the French ORTF on October 8, 1966, with an estimated audience of 20 million viewers, Rossellini's most massive audience to that point and ever since. It went on to enjoy a seven-week billing at La Pagode in Paris, three weeks at a second theater, and five weeks at a third.[18] The film was first shown on Italian television the following year, on April 23, 1967, and, as mentioned earlier, was not shown again until the day after Rossellini's death ten years later, in an egregiously delayed act of homage. In its initial Italian broadcast, it was in competition with a popular musical show, which got 7 million viewers; nevertheless, it managed to attract 6.3 million viewers of its own. As Trasatti reports, however, "the index of enjoyment" was low, barely fifty-five. Perhaps the most depressing thing is that this spectacular film about spectacle was shown on French and Italian television before either had been equipped for color broadcasting. Three years later, the film was released in Italy in commercial theaters.

When the film was first shown in the United States, at the New York Film Festival in 1967, it was greeted unfavorably, and thus Rossellini was unable to get the theater or television distribution he had been hoping for. When it was finally released in 1970, however, the same critics who, according to Paul Schrader, had called it a "mounting bore" now labeled it "surely a masterpiece."[19] The


New Yorker, Newsweek , and the New Republic were all favorably disposed toward the picture, and it even outgrossed Truffaut's The Wild Child . Schrader is right to be angry about the initial American reception of Louis XIV . Yet, if recognition came late, at least it finally came. More disturbing is the fact that it was the last that Rossellini would ever receive.


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.



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.


Blaise Pascal

During the early seventies Rossellini began to hit his stride. More active than at any time since the immediate postwar period, the excitement of his grand project of providing information manifested itself in a host of new ideas for films. It is unclear how serious he was about all of them, for, as he himself freely admitted more than once, he enjoyed researching new subjects more than actually making films out of them. From various sources—newspapers, interviews, and the like—the following astounding list of projects can be drawn up: the multipart series to document science[1] and another on the Industrial Revolution; a ten-part series to be entitled "Stories of Prejudice"; a film on the life of Saint Catherine of Siena; another on Catherine de' Medici (to star Anna Magnani!); a documentary on the research of some scientists at Rice University (where Rossellini began working after he left the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia), apparently in addition to the series on science; an epic project on the American Revolution, in time for the bicentennial celebration, to be coordinated and funded in part by the American Film Institute;[2] another epic on the Thirty Years' War; and biographies of Caligula, Pascal, Descartes, Alberti, Thomas More, Diderot, Daguerre, and Marco Polo. All of the above projects, however, with the exception of the biographies of Pascal, Descartes, and Alberti (the last of which became part of The Age of the Medici series) were to be abandoned, most of them in the planning stages.

Of the unfinished projects, perhaps Caligula had gone the farthest. In the early seventies Rossellini spoke expansively of it in several interviews, and in 1972 Baldelli published the entire script in his book on the director.[3] According to Rossellini the film on Caligula was meant to complement his previous studies


of the Judeo-Christian and Greek traditions by attempting to "discover what was the Roman empire." Interestingly, Rossellini's interpretation of Caligula's famously bizarre behavior is somewhat bizarre itself, and departs more strongly from the available historical record than any of his other history films. The director considered Caligula a republican, like his father Germanicus; his vicious behavior was thus actually meant to provoke a reaction, by showing "in front of the eyes of the Romans that the empire was really a horrible thing. That is what he tried to achieve, but it didn't succeed."[4] Characteristically, again, Rossellini's other aim was to show the "real Rome" of fetid tenements: "In films you have seen something magnificent, everything in marble. There were only a few things like that, the rest was a fierce fight of very aggressive people."

The project that did get made into a film is one of the most memorable of the didactic period, the life of the seventeenth-century French philosophe, Blaise Pascal.[5] In this film Rossellini addresses what was perhaps the primary tension of his artistic life, that between reason and science on the one hand and spirituality on the other. Pascal—with whom Rossellini, once again, identifies very strongly—is a key figure in the attempt to resolve this classic dichotomy, for it is he who argues against Descartes' excessive reliance on rationalism, both because it fails to pay attention to the real data of the world and because it threatens to eliminate the divine mystery of the absolutely unknowable. The film effects the perfect Rossellinian synthesis by privileging human reason (especially vis-à-vis the superstition exemplified by Pascal's servant Jacques) while at the same time insisting upon its limits. As he told the RAI publicity service:

Pascal is an opportunity to represent the question of the relation and conflict between science and religion. A problem which is not yet resolved or cleared. Pascal is at the beginning of the development of modern scientific thought, of the experimental method of mathematics. Pascal, who wears himself out in scientific research and Christian perfection practice, expresses better than anyone two essential aspects of his century: the scientific anxiety and religious piety.[6]

At the same time, the film attempts to synthesize science and art, another important theme during this period. For example, the director writes a short, vintage Rossellini speech for Blaise's father, Etienne, in which he explains to his daughter why she, the poet, should also appreciate the calculating machine Blaise has invented: "Poets love things which demand finesse and fantasy while the mathematicians reason rigorously: starting from a definition, deducing from principles, they then construct useful machines. What is necessary is to be both delicate and exact, together, if you want to be human."[7] (Another aspect of this theme is Pascal's portrayal as a latter-day version of Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential "Renaissance man," when he invents a bus system for Paris.)

What is unique about this film is the important role played in it by Pascal's personality. The director had added slight humanizing touches to Socrates and Acts of the Apostles , but in neither is the main figure so delicately probed as in Pascal . This is perhaps why it seems more accessible to general audiences: on the one hand, the viewer is not overwhelmed with specific historical information unrelated to the principal figure, but more importantly, Pascal's "existential" strug-


The triumph of science: Pascal (Pierre Arditi) explains his experiments concerning
the vacuum in Blaise Pascal  (1972).

gle with the meaning of God and his own life, reminiscent of Karin's in Stromboli , are closer, perhaps, to our own anxious struggles. In spite of Rossellini's claim to the publicity service that "I only wanted to speak of Pascal, I only wanted to enunciate the facts, to tell them the way they happened, without fakery or emotional participation," there is simply a great deal more emotion in this film than in almost any other film of the period. This effect is enhanced by the unusually expressive electronic music that creates aurally the void of infinity that obsesses Pascal. At the end of the film, when Pascal is dying, it blends with an eerie, presumably godlike breathing heard on the sound track, as though the cosmos itself were pulling Pascal up from the earth. At the moment of his death, the music and breathing stop abruptly. The film ends abruptly at this point as well, like Socrates , for in this film about words and ideas, there is nothing more to say, or at least no further physical possibility of saying it.

Likewise, the struggle between science and religion is seen specifically in terms of Pascal's personality. As he becomes more and more successful mounting his scientific experiments, inventing the first calculating machine, proving the existence of the vacuum, and so on, we see his pride and selfishness increase, followed by religious doubts. It is no accident that his scientific reasoning has been brought to bear on the question of the vacuum (a debate that occupies a great


deal of the film), for the question also has religious implications. Theologians had argued that the vacuum does not exist because it cannot be experienced, and God could not have created a "nothing." For Pascal, this kind of reasoning is merely indicative of the inadequacy of our minds in confronting the infinity that is God. Yet it is the very certainty of his reason that keeps him from God. His crisis comes to a head in the following exchange with his Jansenist sister Jacqueline near the end of the film:

BLAISE: Listen: the vacuum is an image of infinity and if I search for the vacuum in nature, and I can demonstrate it, I will be able to discover what it corresponds to, by analogy, in the heart of man. When I have stripped bare the vacuum of my vanity, when my conscience is no longer taken by so many vain thoughts and desires, God, whom I have searched for through reason and whom, because of this, I do not know. . . . Can you know someone or love them, only through the reason? God, perhaps, will look lovingly on the place I will make for him inside of me, a place which will not have the size, finite and miserable, of my reason, but that of the infinity of the vacuum. Let God show himself! And I will know him.

JACQUELINE: But there are other paths to know God. Wait for him silently and he will show himself to you. No, not like the educated, but like the most humble. Read the Gospels, and they will teach you all that you need to learn of Him.

BLAISE: Yes, but nature contains the sign of God in itself! And I believe that love is not love, if it is not illuminated by the clarity of knowledge. And the only knowledge that man needs is to recognize that an infinity of things exist which surpass the reason. Reason is a very small thing when it is not aware of this (pp. 199–200).

Pascal seems, at this point at least, to be speaking for Rossellini, as though the director were retreating slightly from his claims regarding the all-powerful faculty of human reason. There will always be something greater; yet it is precisely this something greater that is reflected in the mind, as Alberti will argue in The Age of the Medici , and this is why we must continue to use and develop what God has given us. Earlier, Pascal makes a speech that clearly links him with Socrates and with the director's own oft-stated views:

God remains beyond our reach, hidden from our mediocre capacities of reasoning. . . . Science has two extreme points, which touch each other. The first is pure natural ignorance. The other is that which the great spirits reach, who, once they realize how much man has to learn, realize they know nothing. Those who are in the middle, who have gone beyond natural ignorance, but who have not been able to reach the other—the wise man's ignorance—have only a smattering of science and pretend to be the learned ones. These are the people who create confusion and judge everything poorly (p. 196).

The film's form is that with which we have become familiar in the didactic films. The Pancinor zoom is used to excellent effect,[8] but this time a different sense of space and a much stronger feeling of depth are created as well. This is due mostly to an intense, dynamic chiaroscuro effect, as characters are continually seen emerging from deep, dark recesses, usually hallways, into the full light, a movement that visually echoes the thematic play between the ambiguous light


of reason and the welcoming darkness of the unknowable. Socrates was bathed throughout in a strong, even light, appropriate to its philosophical certainty, but here, reason is doubted. Long passages of dialogue of scholastic disputation are included, and it is an open question as to just how much of this any audience can understand the first time through (or even the second). Nevertheless, Rossellini is, of course, right to insist that the audience must do its share of the work; even more convincing is his view that the point is not to explain everything definitively, once and for all, but to make the audience curious . He told Philip Strick: "If you try (as I do) to present something educational then talk is unavoidable. . . . We must get used to receiving a little more information. I'm aware of the danger of filming long sections of dialogue, but I am quite stubborn. I insist on them. . . . I want to arouse curiosity in the audience." He goes on to cite proudly the results of a RAI survey, which determined that, although fewer than one percent of all Italians had ever heard of Pascal prior to the broadcast of Rossellini's film, six months later a follow-up survey indicated that forty-five percent of the population had heard of him, and sales of books on him had increased dramatically during the same period.[9]

This insistence on the presentation of undiluted philosophical dialogue also, of course, works against the emotion, mentioned earlier, that is developed in other scenes. Furthermore, the emotion that is presented is watched rather than actively participated in. We see Pascal's feelings and sufferings, we even see them manfested in various aspects of the mise-en-scène, but, as in the Bergman-era films, we are not especially encouraged to identify with them ourselves. Thus, even in the scene that opens with a very conventional, uncharacteristic close-up on Pascal's bearded, ravaged face, we are almost immediately distanced from his suffering in an uncanny way that is difficult to describe. In the scene in the chapel, the camera circles Pascal while simultaneously zooming in on him to a very tight shot, coldly reenacting the emotional pressure he feels. (Conversely, in the only scene in which we see Pascal out in society, Rossellini never allows a close-up, or even a one-shot, and the camera remains remote, dryly focusing on the communal context.)

At many other moments in the film, Rossellini's technique characteristically overturns normal dramatic expectations. Thus, at the very beginning, attention is properly focused on Pascal's father, as Blaise is only seventeen years old. Like Louis XIV, Blaise must win his right to the screen, as it were, even if this frustrates our desire to see more of the famous protagonist. It is as though he must first become famous through the events of the film. Again, at the end of the witch trial, we rather expect Blaise to jump up and set everybody straight, because after all, he is a "genius." He does nothing of the sort. When he debates Descartes, the older philosopher does not say, "You're right! I'll completely change my philosophical views," as the conventional emotional logic of the scene might require. Instead, he more plausibly tells Pascal that his remarks were brilliant and that he will think about what the young philosopher has said.

Besides the increased interest, however distanced, in what might be called psychological realism, the other thing that is new is that Rossellini is attempting to reconstruct a life and an age without limiting himself to the adaptation of contemporary historical accounts. Naturally, much of Pascal's thought and dia-


logue comes from the Pensées and other lesser-known works, but the events of his life themselves, and their interpretation, are drawn from recent biographies rather than from documents contemporary with Pascal. Rossellini even goes so far as to invent a meeting between Pascal and Descartes that never took place (though they were in contact by letter).[10] In fact, this film is closer to the standard Hollywood "bio pic" than virtually anything else Rossellini was ever to do. Usually Rossellini chooses a decisive moment to analyze a specific turning point in history. In Pascal , however, we actually follow the whole of the subject's adult life, from the age of seventeen, when his father becomes the tax collector at Rouen, to 1662, when he dies at age thirty-nine. The film is thus overtly structured around Pascal's biography, and it clearly wants to understand this person just as much or more than this particular moment in the history of Western civilization. In fact, nearly everything significant in Pascal's life is included: his precocious successes at mathematical reasoning, his scientific experiments following upon the work of Torricelli in Italy, his movement out into society once his sister goes into the convent, and, especially, his conversion to Jansenism, the "fundamentalist" reformation of Catholicism, which gave fuel to his religious anguish and led him, despite papal censure and religious persecution, to do polemical battle with the Jesuits. Characteristically, though, the one episode from Pascal's life that Rossellini does not include is his close escape from death in a carriage accident that, according to legend, caused him to understand, for the first time on an emotional level, his own mortality. This episode obviously would have been highly cinematic, and it is difficult to imagine another director's film on Pascal not including it; for Rossellini, however, its spectacularity would have detracted from the film's emphasis on ideas.[11]

Despite the increased emphasis on biography, however, Rossellini also wants once again to give us a feeling for the age, especially through the everyday details of mundane living. Hence, one scene begins with the rising of Pierre Seguier, chancellor of France—reminiscent of the levee of Louis XIV—and we are treated to a host of homely details that seem completely unrelated to the principal thrust of the narrative. It is only a few minutes later, when Father Mersenne, Pascal's mentor, arrives with Pascal's new calculator, that we understand that the scene has a narrative purpose as well. Interestingly, though, whenever Rossellini does want to represent the "essence" of an era, it is always in terms of its intellectual configurations, which, in this film as in Louis XIV , means medical science. The inadequacies of seventeenth-century medical practice also serve as a foil for Pascal's insistence on the experimental method. One whole scene, for example, is devoted to the setting of his father's broken leg, including an explanation of the chewed herbs that are placed against the leg as cure. We also see how medical "testimony" is used in the witchcraft trial, as certain "points of insensitivity" on the woman's body are said to indicate clearly that she is in thrall to Satan. Another scene takes place in the apothecary's shop, as we watch him mix "newborn puppies and a half kilo of crushed worms" to make a paste for the younger Pascal's aching legs. At the end of the film, when Pascal is dying, Rossellini sets up a neat opposition between the old-style doctors who speak of humors and the like, and the new-style doctor, made fun of by the others, who actually bothers to take Pascal's pulse to determine his condition. The final joke is that both are


wrong: the pulse taker pronounces Pascal fit and healthy moments before he dies.

Rossellini's luck with the RAI was somewhat better with Pascal . For one thing, the decision to split the film into two parts was less damaging than it had been for Socrates since, with some stretching, it is possible to think of the first half as "scientific" and the second half as "religious." More importantly, the broadcast had greater impact since the two episodes were shown on consecutive days, according to Trasatti, beginning Tuesday, May 16, 1972, at 9:00 P.M. on channel 1, against rather weak competition for a change.[12] The total number of spectators for the two nights was, in fact, the highest Rossellini was ever to have—16.1 million—though the "enjoyment index" was a rather low fifty-nine for the first episode, climbing to sixty-four for the second.


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]


The Age of the Medici

The year 1972 was the annus mirabilis of the last stage of Rossellini's career, for during this year he managed to complete Pascal, Augustine of Hippo , and the three-part series entitled L'età di Cosimo de' Medici (The Age of the Medici) . This nearly four-and-one-half hour series, one of Rossellini's last major accomplishments, was originally conceived as two separate films on the fifteenth-century Florentine figures Cosimo de' Medici and Leon Battista Alberti. Putting the two biographical projects together proved to be a brilliant idea, for it is in fact this very joining—of politics and commerce with art and learning—that emerges as the principal theme of the series. The result is a superbly detailed examination of the rise of humanism in the context of quattrocento Florence.[1]

The overall arrangement of the series is kept simple, and early on, Rossellini sketches in the political conflicts that will structure the first two episodes. Rinaldo degli Albizi, the representative of the Florentine nobility, emerges as the Medicis' greatest enemy, and by the end of the first episode, he succeeds in having Cosimo exiled from Florence as a threat to the republic. The second episode concerns Cosimo's cunning manipulations, including bribery and threats, to return. From this point on, the political and economic context having been explained, the focus shifts toward Alberti and an examination of the philosophical and artistic underpinning of Renaissance humanism.

Rossellini again places himself strategically between two epochs, in this case the waning Middle Ages and the barely emerging Renaissance.[2] The latter period is equated with such other great moments of civilization as fifth-century Athens and the establishment of Christianity, and occupies a special place for the director as the source of the humanism that has underwritten the subsequent history of Western civilization. As he wrote in his book Utopia, autopsia 1010 :


[Humanism is] the attempt to allow the human spirit to reach its full potential, in complete freedom of activity, beyond every constriction, putting the accent on the worth and dignity of man which express themselves in the capacity to understand, imagine, and invent. This attitude became concrete in the fifteenth century and reached back to the sources of the wisdom of classical antiquity, enriching them with study, meditation, and research. Its ideal was the complete man —or the most complete possible—capable of expressing the "known" and the "to be known" and also human "feeling." The Renaissance is the result of this rebirth of man, finally capable of thinking, experimenting, researching, and expressing himself.

These notions are little more than commonplaces, of course, but Rossellini goes on to make explicit the connection with the rest of his historical project, explaining how this humanism is related to science and the industrial revolution:

It is a period which is also the beginning of the development of "technique," understood in a new way, and which will become the foundation for that industrial revolution which will emerge three centuries later. But it is also the moment which creates so many new curiosities which will find their fulfillment with the development of the experimental method (Bacon, Galileo) and which will systematize the philosophical criteria used for the identification of the laws of Nature. This method leads to the Science of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[3]

The film opens with the funeral of Cosimo's father, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, with the attendant transference of money and power to the son. The point is made very quickly, in overheard conversations concerning the deceased, that it is possible to be rich and good at the same time (perhaps like being artistic and scientific?), though Rossellini leaves a final judgment on Giovanni di Bicci open, as we hear both positive and negative things said about him. On the surface, at least, this is Rossellini's technique throughout the series—to let us make up our own minds about things—but some naive critics have maintained that, in fact, Rossellini has no preestablished point to make and allows the viewer "total" freedom. This is nonsense, of course, for if we are allowed to make our own judgments in individual scenes, the overall course of events—like those surrounding the establishment of Christianity in Acts of the Apostles —flows past us as naturally as a river, as though the Renaissance and all that it brought with it were simply meant to be.

No sooner is the funeral scene over than we are launched on a grand survey of Florentine history, economics, politics, manufacturing, crafts, and art. As in Acts of the Apostles , we initially see everything through the eyes of a visiting foreigner, in this case a British merchant named Wadding. He is in town to buy goods, and the wonders of Florence are explained to him in loving detail. The city itself is emphasized as an entity from the beginning, even more strongly than are Jerusalem in Acts and Athens in Socrates , and we are treated early on to a matte shot of Florence from afar that underlines the city's status as another "character" in the film. This shot usually evokes laughter in the audience, but it is clearly not meant to be realistically convincing, as it is taken from a highly stylized, colored woodcut of the period. Again, Rossellini


means to give us a visual summation of Florence as an idea rather than convince us that we are really there.

On their way to the city, Wadding and his guide encounter an old man who bewails the changes that have taken place, especially the increasing importance of the city over the country and the shift from a barter economy to one based on money: "Today all life has become money, money and usury. We are walking directly toward madness. It is the end of the world." Rossellini makes no attempt to account for this harangue in conventional dramatic terms, and it is clear that the old man is there simply for the sake of what he has to say. Structurally, he occupies the same place taken up later by the woman who argues with Alberti about the painter Masaccio's "blasphemy" of showing God in human terms and the man who denounces Pascal in the earlier film for slighting the ancients. Such commentary is meant to provide us a fresh sense of how various controversies looked to its participants, and may even foster the illusion of directorial neutrality. Given the subsequent course of Western history, however, we are finally unable to do anything but smile patronizingly on such "stupidities," and Rossellini knows it.

Information pours out to the English merchant. We hear of the tortuous rationalizations of the Florentines to allow usury (which at this time meant lending money with any demand of interest), even though it is expressly forbidden by Church law. When Wadding responds, "This clearly demonstrates that with a little subtlety and hypocrisy, one can elude the law," his Florentine guide merely laughs. (Throughout, Rossellini wisely allows mild aspersions to be cast on Florence—the Florentines often do it themselves—for he knows the city's exuberance and imagination will always redeem its sins.) We learn of different types of wool, the history of the plague years, and the Florentine guilds' ruthless protection of trade secrets. The sample of silk that Wadding has brought with him, in fact, turns out to be a fake; the guild meets, determines who the turncoat must be, and, with incredible economy, in the following scene we see the man killed and his house in Avignon set afire. Various papal intrigues are explained to us next, as well as the reasons for the war the Albizi have fomented against the neighboring city of Lucca. We are shown how coins are manufactured, how the government works, and how taxes are levied and collected; and we see Cosimo hiring professional troublemakers to win the people over to his side against the Albizi.

Perhaps the most significant moment of the early part of the series, which prepares the way for the last half's emphasis on humanism, comes when Wadding is taken to see Masaccio's luminous new frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel.[4] Wadding is amazed that so much money and effort are spent on such "beautiful, but useless" things, but this medieval man is even more overwhelmed by the naturalism of Masaccio's figures of Adam and Eve:

I do not know what to say. I understand little of such things. Yet these works astonish me. I believe that such things do not exist in England. . . . So they allow these sensual images to appear in churches here? These things confuse me. True, these bodies are human, but they deny that which is spiritual in man. [There is a pause in the actor's delivery between each sentence.][5]


Rossellini wisely keeps Wadding's guide from replying, since the rest of the series constitutes the only proper response. The brilliance of the Renaissance, we come to understand, is precisely its synthesis of the pagan cult of beauty and the antisensual Christian values that were at odds in Augustine of Hippo . In the largest sense, what will be achieved is the reunification of the body and the soul.

This typical Rossellinian theme of unity is expressed in other guises as well. Thus, one of the major events of the film is the Florentine council during which the Church hierarchy seeks to unify the eastern and western churches, just as Augustine and the apostles struggled to put down heresy to preserve the early Church's unity. When Cosimo is applauded for facilitating this grand reconciliation, he is told: "We owe to you the unification of the Holy Roman church with the Greek Orthodox church. And also the unification of the inheritance of Athens and Rome" (p. 357). Everything of value in Western history thus has a stake in this question of unity, of oneness. Even the doctrinal agreement arrived at by the churchmen is that the Holy Spirit comes from the Father and the Son, "as from a single principle, and this truth of the faith must be believed and accepted by all Christians" (p. 358). The economic and social manifestation of this unity is found in the new ascendancy of Florence, which, as Alberti says a few moments later, "has become the center of Europe" (p. 359).

The desire for unity relates similarly to the other principal themes of the film. According with Rossellini's lifelong insistence on the necessity for the unity of the whole person, here the emphasis is on that remarkable Florentine blend of the ostensibly conflicting impulses of art, humanism, and commerce. Without actually analyzing it, Rossellini himself pointed to this conjunction in a 1975 interview: "The Medici are finally the grand joining of humanism and mercantilism, the great dream of the bourgeoisie which came to the surface with the economic organization which we know—banks, letters of credit, etc. These two things, which seem to have nothing to do with one another, manifested themselves at the same historical moment."[6] For Rossellini the rise of the bourgeoisie is seen as an almost unmitigated blessing, as it was in L'età del ferro , for it brings with it science and technology, with their "labor-saving" machines, as well as a new view of the place of human beings in the cosmos. Thus, it is no accident that Alberti is also portrayed, like Pascal, as a Leonardesque Renaissance man who is capable not only of art and architecture, but also of designing fortresses, weapons, the gadgets that spur his research into perspective, and, above all, the machinery that "works in place of the hands." We see this conjuncture most clearly when he shows off his new inventions to the infamous tyrant Sigismondo Malatesta (who was not only excommunicated, but in a unique ceremony actually "canonized to hell"). Alberti has been invited to Rimini to design what has since been known as the Tempio Malatestiana because of its reliance on classical models to solve contemporary architectural problems. This is not the end of his services, however, for he also invents a new cannon for Sigismondo, designs a fortress for him, explains how to defeat an enemy by using intelligence rather than force, and suggests how to lay out a city in such a way that internal dissent can be easily quelled. (Though after outlining the plans, he demurs: "However, this would be no ideal city—it is a tyrant's city, very different from


that of a king or a republic" [p. 365]). It is difficult to locate Rossellini in all of this, but in spite of the film's overwhelmingly favorable portrait of Alberti, it is impossible to miss the connections here among religion, humanism, industry, war, and repression. Ambiguity reigns as well in an earlier sequence of the same scene: the machine-filled room that Alberti proudly shows off to Sigismondo is also noisy, crowded, and grim, as though unconsciously pointing toward the horrors—graphically depicted in Europa '51 —that accompanied the wonders of the machine age which Alberti helped to inaugurate.

The theme of time is also relevant here, and in the second episode Brunelleschi shows Cosimo the clock he has invented, telling him, "I have always enjoyed experimenting with machines, and I think that a machine to measure time will be very useful in the future, don't you agree?" (p. 332). Very useful indeed, for it was precisely the measurement of time that permitted the organization of industrial labor, removed from the natural temporal rhythms of the seasons and the sun. Time is also an aspect of what is perhaps the film's most explicit linking of learning and commerce, in a scene in which Alberti convinces his brother that he is making a mistake by not charging interest on an installment contract with some foreign merchants. The merchants are outraged at first, but Alberti explains that time is a gift of God's like any other, and is therefore meant to be exploited by man. So, if they want to pay in installments, they will have to pay extra. Alberti then moves naturally to show them the latest of his magic perspective boxes (Brunelleschi has also shown a perspective box to Cosimo in the scene mentioned above); the box amazes them, and the whole comes together: "Our compliments and our respects to your great knowledge, as well as to your abilities as a merchant!" (p. 350).

The film continually celebrates the unique character of the Florentine mercantile community. As one character exclaims: "Florence is rich in florins and in generous men, and so there is work for all its artists. Its expanding business and commerce have elevated artisans of the simplest mechanical arts to the finer arts" (p. 354). And the grandest patron of all is Cosimo de' Medici, who emerges, in typical Rossellini fashion, as a fascinating and contradictory character. One of the film's great strengths, in fact, is that we are never quite sure how to take Cosimo. We are clearly meant to admire him, yet he is also shown as a man who will manipulate people and events to get his way, bribe officials, pay the debts of his friends to keep them loyal, hire troublemakers, and even try to get more deductions on his income tax than he knows he is rightfully due. He and his men scheme continually, and though they regard the arrival of the pope in Florence as properly moral and uplifting, they are gleeful that it will also be good for business.

One of the most powerfully ambiguous scenes in this regard is the one in which Cosimo goes to speak to the archbishop of Florence. We are aware throughout that Cosimo is committed above all to the law, but perhaps because it usually works in his favor. The specific conflict that surfaces in this scene is between morality, on the one hand, and civil law and duty, on the other, an issue that was also raised in Augustine . Cosimo insists that the law must be upheld (and, thus, those who exiled him must be executed) "because, as you know,


cities cannot be governed with Our Fathers" (p. 355). The bishop replies that the most grievous injustices can be committed in the name of the law, and demands to know what Cosimo is planning to do with the prisoners his men have taken. Saying nothing, Cosimo throws himself abruptly at the feet of the archbishop, a gesture reminiscent of the moment in which Louis XIV insincerely begs his mother to forgive him for removing her from his council. The film then cuts instantly, in a tidy, wordless cause-and-effect equation, to a man being executed in a dark prison and then back to a tight shot on Cosimo's face that begins the next scene.

Throughout the film Rossellini is careful to sprinkle in negative views of Cosimo, but overall, the whole is orchestrated, even visually, to make us identify strongly with him and his cause—though, as in earlier Rossellini films, from a distance and not emotionally. One of the film's most powerful scenes comes when Cosimo returns to Florence from exile, and heroically insists on going into town alone and unarmed, where he is greeted by throngs of cheering citizens. He is continually associated with light, while the scenes of recruitment for his enemies' armies, for example, take place in dark basements. He is also explicitly shown to be a lover of the arts and learning, and when he spends a great deal of money to buy some rare books, he is overtly contrasted with the boorish German princes and merchants who have sold them merely to make a profit.

But if Rossellini is favorably disposed toward Cosimo, in spite of his faults, his true identification in this film—on a level with his sympathy for Socrates—is with Leon Battista Alberti, of whom he is nearly worshipful. Alberti first appears near the beginning of the second episode, and irregularly after that, almost in alternating scenes. (He does not really "take over" once and for all, splitting the film in two, as some critics have maintained.) Through him, we are introduced to all of the humanist topics of the day: the debate concerning the use of Latin rather than the vernacular (as might be expected, Alberti opts for the historically validated decision using the vernacular because of its greater accessibility), the competition between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti for the commission to build the cupola on top of the already-constructed dome of the Florence Cathedral, and so on. We visit Donatello's studio with him, where he marvels at the sculptor's bronze David, and wince when he is attacked for theorizing about architecture without being a practicing architect. We hear his theories about perspective, his plan for rescuing classical Rome from the ruins. We are made to understand the brilliance of his claim that much knowledge will come from the ancients, whose buildings and writings have lain untouched and buried for centuries. (For all his reverence for the ancients, however, by the end of the film Alberti is claiming, with Rossellini's support, that the men of Florence are their equals.) Overtly becoming the director's spokesman, he in fact implicitly criticizes the ancients by insisting again and again on the truth of Donatello's dictum that "it is necessary to study nature to understand what is true." When Alberti defends the human dimension of Masaccio's Trinità in the third episode, he is merely repeating what Rossellini has said many times in interviews:


But Christ came to us as a man. No doubt religious faith has its just value, but the artist must start from his own reality, a human reality. Masaccio rightly gave man his exact dimensions and he did well to give Christ so human a body. What is important to me in this painting is that art and knowledge are interwoven. There can be no fine art today unless it is as well fine science (pp. 346–47).

Similarly, the very opening scene of the third episode shows Alberti laboriously measuring a boy's head with calipers because he believes it is impossible to draw, paint, or sculpt without "assiduous study." Yet in spite of his insistence on looking at the world and on attending to its disparate empirical particulars, Alberti's purpose, like Rossellini's, is always to chart "essences." Thus, Alberti measures the boy's head to discover "the universal model of reality, one that exists in nature itself. The various parts which compose a body, all related by fixed proportions and symmetry. To discover the mathematical and geometric rules governing these relationships means to grasp the very essence of the archetype, the universal model on which nature builds" (p. 345). What is different in The Age of the Medici is that this thought of essences does not consistently or exclusively lead, as it does in other films, in a religious direction. In fact, Rossellini insists on the more conventional (and increasingly disputed) view of the Renaissance as human-centered, and God, whenever mentioned, seems little more than an afterthought. Even in Alberti's lengthy defense of Masaccio's work, God is barely spoken of except as a good subject for the painting.

Nevertheless, there are two seemingly important, if somewhat ambiguous, religious moments in the film that bear further examination. The first comes near the end of the second episode, and takes place in a church. The scene has not been prepared for, and a straight cut takes us to a medium shot of a priest preaching. His first words are: "Men of our time and our city are truly reputed to be the masters and creators of everything. They seek knowledge in the writings of pagans, and they forget that life and reason are fruits of the spirit which Christ our Lord has given us" (p. 334). The camera then pans the faithful, among whom are an expressionless Cosimo and Alberti, and in the same shot, a rather awkward panning and zooming movement closely details a medieval fresco that graphically illustrates the torments of the damned, while the preacher goes on at length about the beauty of the soul, salvation, and faith. Focused again on the preacher, the camera pulls back to split the screen exactly between him and a fresco of the Crucifixion, a subject that has not been mentioned thus far in the film. Though the preacher is in effect directly countering the spirit of everything else in the series, Rossellini sympathetically accompanies his words with the voices of a choir. There is no other comment, and we must puzzle out the apparent contradiction ourselves. Here Rossellini nicely succeeds, for once, in the attempt to present the material in a dialectical fashion, without prejudgment. (In fact, throughout the film—and it is more in evidence here than in any other film of the didactic period—several different characters, in a technique reminiscent of what Bakhtin called Dostoevsky's "dialogic imagination," offer widely divergent opinions in a given scene, and we are left to divine the "point" on our own.)

The other scene is more complicated. It takes place in the studio of the great


Alberti (Virginio Gazzolo, on the right) discusses the nature of the universe
with the philosopher Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (Ugo Cardea) and
the mathematician Toscanelli (Bruno Catteneo) in  The Age of the Medici  (1972).

mathematician Toscanelli, immediately following Alberti's defense of Masaccio's Trinità , and includes Alberti, Toscanelli, and the noted scientist and philosopher Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. We learn of Toscanelli's work with ancient Arabic mathematical texts, by means of which he has correctly calculated the circumference of the earth, made maps, and predicated the return of a comet. Nicholas, who confesses to being stupefied by these calculations, launches into a mystical speech, accompanied by emotionally heightened music on the sound track, in which all this apparent diversity of the world, once again, is unified:

The universe is a pluralistic unity. It is difficult for us to understand, but, though the universe is composed of a thousand parts, they are brought back to unity by God who lives in them . And in this unity, opposites coincide. Heat and cold, light and shadow, high and low: we think of these as contradictions but they coexist in the universe and are rational, for in the universe, as in God, opposites are harmonious, at one and the same time containing the reason for their own being and for their opposites. Truth is in the one which is absolute, singular, and infinite. But human knowledge is relative, multiple, limited. It is only an approximation and every science is merely a conjecture. God and the universe are unknowable; the only remaining path is that of the unknowing sage [the theme of Socrates and Pascal ]


and his constant organic study of conjecture. Only in God can one realize the summit of knowledge, for his infinite simplicity contains within itself the multiplicity of things [my emphasis]. (pp. 347–48).

The potentially dangerous deconstructive thought that opposites "at one and the same time" contain "the reason for their own being and for their opposites," a notion that seems to open an endless oscillation that could threaten the self-sufficiency of pure presence—in other words, the self-presence of entities or concepts that can come first and can stand alone—is here defused by anchoring it in a God who reconciles opposites and who is the source, center, and end point of the truth that is "one." The obvious plurality and difference of experience is thus nicely recuperated in a deity as the Derridean "transcendental signified," which can ground, or better, halt, the endless chain of signifiers and the difference and discontinuity that characterize the world. Nicholas' strategy is, in fact, not very different from the one undertaken by Bazin when he speaks of the "essence of reality."

This centering, unifying operation has its specifically visual side as well. In the very next scene Alberti is espousing his views of perspective and insists that painters will have to became geometricians if they are to paint properly. "Should human knowledge ever uncover all truth we would know that man and his world are at one predetermined harmony and rational plan." It is linear perspective, based on mathematics, that manifests this harmony, and again, the connection with commerce is not far behind. The art historian Samuel Edgerton, in his book The Renaissance Re-Discovery of Linear Perspective , suggests that in fifteenth-century Florence, mathematics had become the lingua franca that united businessmen, artists, humanists, and shopkeepers. It is to this fact that he attributes the ready acceptance of this new style of painting based on perspective. Men of commerce appreciated it because it rested "on tidy principles of mathematical order that they applied to their bank ledgers."[7] In the Middle Ages, of course, reality had been regarded as something chaotic and multiple (even if subsumed in the unity of God). With the birth of Renaissance perspective, however, reality began to be seen as though through a window—as something one looks at "objectively,"[8] rather than something one is in subjectively—in other words, a field available to the investigation of the single eye, and more or less stable and fixed. The film theorist Stephen Heath has examined the epistemological implications of this new system in some detail. He first quotes Pierre Francastel: "In the fifteenth century, the human societies of Western Europe organized, in the material and intellectual senses of the term, a space completely different from that of the preceding generations; with their technical superiority, they progressively imposed that space over the planet." Heath then continues:

For five centuries men and women exist at ease in that space; the Quattrocento system provides a practical representation of the world which in time appears so natural as to offer its real representation, the immediate translation of reality itself. The conception of the Quattrocento system is that of a scenographic space, space set out as spectacle for the eye of the spectator. Eye and knowledge come together; subject, object, and the distance of the steady observation that allows the one to master the other; the scene with its strength of geometry and optics.


From here it is an easy step to the photographic camera, which also "fixes" the world, and then to the film camera, which presents "a world . . . conceived outside of process and practice, empirical scene of the confirmed and central master-spectator, serenely 'present' in tranquil rectilinearity."[9] It might also be added, in conjunction with Rossellini's vision of Western history, that this system of objectifying, of placing reality "out there," yet directly approachable through the conflation of eye/I and knowledge, leads inevitably as well to empirical science, technology, and the Industrial Revolution.

At times the link between filmmaking and Renaissance perspective theory is made even more explicit in the series as well, as, for example, when Alberti stands in directly for Rossellini not only by expressing his views, but by acting as a prototypical film director. Thus, when the merchants are amazed by Alberti's visual inventions, Alberti, like Rossellini a debunker, is quick to point out that there is nothing magical about them at all. He says that it is all just "a system of mirrors," nicely describing the visual aspect of Rossellini's historical reconstructions. When Alberti's friend replies, "It's almost a game!" Alberti becomes more serious, and the connection with Rossellini's own lifelong work is impossible to miss: "No, it is a means of discovering nature through images which measure our eyes' capacity to see and to be captured in illusion. To establish how best to guide one's hand when one would trace of nature, to capture its movements, its color" (pp. 350–51). The visual apparatus also allows both Alberti and the filmmaker to reach those continually sought essences through, or in spite of, the particularities of the image. In an insightful article on this film, Michael Silverman insists that both Alberti and Rossellini urge the viewer to forget the "materiality of the signifier," the materiality of what we are seeing and hearing:

Rossellini and Alberti are both masters of the double image, but it is not a doubleness which promotes disharmony. The spiritual (whether it goes under the name of humanism or something else) is embodied corporeally and rigorously, even as it points elsewhere, to another center of power. For a director like Bresson the image is insufficient, it points to a breach; for Rossellini, inheritor of Alberti's teaching, the image is sufficient precisely because it legally denominates a spiritual system which sanctions the human eye even as it leads it toward a vanishing point.[10]

In some ways, though, Rossellini seems to be vaguely aware of the gap within this double image between signifier and signified, for the film's visual space is often played with. Thus, many of his scenes are composed in deep focus, where space is beautifully and complexly suggested, while others, usually when characters stand in front of a fresco or tapestry, are purposely and self-reflexively flattened.[11] Even the zoom is used ambiguously here, for while most critics think of it as a device that collapses space, in this film it often seems to have the feel of a dolly (mostly because characters and objects are arranged in circles, often with their backs toward the camera), and thus seems to be plunging through a real, three-dimensional field. The significance of this dynamic of illusionism and its unmasking remains unclear, however,[12] since the relation of the two-dimensional scenes to the three-dimensional does not seem to be determined thematically, but


rather represents an unspecific problematizing of the question of space. Once again, as with the spectacularity of La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV , Rossellini seems to be pointing to a troublesome area without really bothering to explore it in depth.

As usual, Rossellini's treatment by the RAI was tantamount to an insult. The first episode was substituted for another program at the last minute and broadcast the day after Christmas in 1972, traditionally a time of little television viewing. In Sergio Trasatti's words:

Here we were faced with Cosimo de' Medici, when we were expecting Mickey Mouse and Popeye. And what do we discover, in fact, but Popeye at the same time on the other channel. The first episode of L'Età di Cosimo , even if it was supposedly watched by ten million people, was drowned in an orgy of Max Linder sketches, cartoons, and acrobatic tricks from Billy Smart's circus. It would be interesting to have some statistics on the "enjoyment index" . . . but they are lacking. It is also strange that they are lacking for the next two episodes as well. For Popeye, however, the thermometer of enjoyment went all the way to 77, and the RAI was satisfied.[13]



Rossellini's next film, variously known in Italy as Cartesio or Cartesius , depending on whether the Italian or Latin version of the name is used, concerns the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes. The film has never been released, nor, to my knowledge, ever shown, in the United States, and it is unlikely that it ever will. In making this two-and-one-half-hour film Rossellini seems to have wanted to determine, masochistically, just how far he could go, how much he could get away with, through the sheer force of his personality. Having somehow managed to convince the RAI to fund and air films on the unlikely figures of Socrates, Pascal, Saint Augustine, Leon Battista Alberti, and so on, he takes one more step, a film on the philosophy of Descartes. He joked to the American historian Peter Wood that he was planning it because someone had said that an interesting film could not be made on Descartes. His portrait of the philosopher is, as usual, distanced and intellectual, and his collaborators Luciano Scaffa and Marcella Mariani Rossellini understandably portray this refusal to accede to popular taste as a virtue:

Rossellini was not even slightly tempted to give a psychological dimension to Descartes' "doubt." In several scenes, courageous for their toughness of style, he documents instead [Descartes'] genuinely methodological and coldly rational character, demonstrating once again his faith in the autonomous force of the intrinsic content of the information he wanted to convey to the public. . . . The film's rhythms, images, and its choice of texts minimize any gratuitous concession to spectacularity.[1]

Undoubtedly all true, but this time Rossellini may simply have gone too far. The film is so absolutely static and its drama so totally dominated by a welter of


conflicting philosophical ideas impossible to comprehend on a first hearing, that watching it, frankly, is quite trying. It may have been for this reason that Cartesius , the last full-length television film that Rossellini was ever to make, was followed by a year of complete inactivity, the director's first since the mid-fifties.[2]

Nevertheless, the film is not without interest and its own delicate beauty. One of its strengths, for example, is its attempt to explain Descartes' philosophy in terms of the social, political, economic, and intellectual context of the time. The period seems to have had a special appeal to Rossellini, since it is virtually the same as that depicted in both La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV and Pascal; in addition, we know that one of his uncompleted projects was a film on the Thirty Years' War, also of this period. The attention to everyday detail of these earlier films is likewise repeated in Cartesius . For example, the scene in which Descartes is first awakened (he liked to sleep late and to work in bed) is strongly reminiscent of the apparent aimlessness of a similar scene in Louis XIV; at other times we see him ordering a trunk to be made or listening to his mistress and her friend discuss the price of tulip bulbs in otherwise purposeless scenes. A similar interest is shown in authentic scientific instruments (like the immense telescope that fascinates the philosopher) and in medical practices as an index of the scientific knowledge of the age, as, for example, when Descartes debates the new theories concerning the circulation of the blood, or when another character's doctor tells him that tea, the new import, is so good for the health that one should drink at least fifty cups a day. Nevertheless, Rossellini's typical emphasis on the everyday and the aleatory is less pronounced in Cartesius , as much more time and energy must necessarily be devoted to the explanation of Descartes' philosophy, no mean task.[3]

Descartes, as the founder of modern rationalism, is central to Rossellini's grand design of tracing Western intellectual history (and, as usual, the director assumes that intellectual history is history). The accent on Descartes coincides with the earlier focus on Pascal and Alberti: influenced profoundly by humanism's anthropocentricity, all three insisted upon observation of the real world and reliance upon human rational powers, rather than on blind acceptance of the wisdom of the ancients. More specifically, Descartes is crucial to an understanding of the origins of science and technology, Rossellini's principal project. As Barbara Ward Jackson and Rene Dubos have pointed out, Descartes' importance comes from the fact that his method allowed for "the reduction of fields of study to their ultimate components, the 'discrete objects' which make them up, irrespective of all the variables of changing situation and context."[4] This is, in effect, an operation analogous to the establishment of an "objective reality" through perspective, which was discussed in the previous chapter. Here, the multiplicity of reality, seen as field, is reduced to individuated objects that are unproblematically constituted, and thus open to scientific investigation as discrete entities "out there," by a single, unproblematic subject.

Yet there are differences as well. Alberti's utter confidence is somewhat attenuated in Descartes and Pascal, both of whom are troubled by religious doubts. However, while Pascal is tormented by an intensely personal religious anxiety that wastes his body and spirit, Descartes seems mostly bothered by the institu-


Descartes (Ugo Cardea) attends a medical lecture in  Cartesius  (1974).

tional forms of religion. In a telling scene, Descartes, after discovering that Galileo has been condemned for the heresy of relying on empirical evidence that the earth is not the center of the universe, prudently withdraws his own book, based on the same Copernican model, from the printer. More importantly, Descartes is not as committed to the empirical method as Pascal is because, as he points out several times, the information provided by the senses is often fallacious if it is not rigorously screened and controlled by reason. For Descartes, reason is exemplified principally in the exactness and clarity of mathematics, and for him the classic opposition throughout the film is between book learning (here meant as excessive loyalty to the teaching of the ancients) and the "evidence" provided by one's own ratiocination rather than by experiment.

As with the earlier films, the chief battle is represented as between the old and the new. One of the clearest moments of this confrontation comes when Descartes is being shown the marvels of a telescope by his friends Huygens and the astronomer Ciprus. Characteristically, Rossellini does not feel that it is necessary for his main character to occupy center stage at all times, and as this scene is Ciprus' show, he is the one whose lines carry the thematic weight:

CIPRUS: The telescope has revealed the movements of the heavens. As Bacon says, man is minister and interpreter of nature and he can understand


it only by observing, through experience and intellect, its order. Man knows nothing more than this, nor can he.

HUYGENS: Nothing! Truly nothing!

CIPRUS: And it is ignorance of the causes which cuts us off from an understanding of the effects and which keeps us from acting on nature according to its own laws. . . . And thus which keeps us from subjecting it to our will. This too is an idea of Bacon's, because nature can only be defeated by obeying it. And when we do not know the causes, our explanations of natural phenomena come from our imagination, and God knows how fallacious that is! (p. 426)

The naysayer in this scene, like the nameless, functional characters we have seen in the other films, gives us a vivid sense of what the "new sciences" meant to those living at the time. What he is concerned about is the confusion that will be caused by discovering new planets in the universe.

This is all extremely imprudent! This is how people like you have ruined astrology and destroyed all its connections with medicine. They have added new heavenly bodies to the design of the sky without thinking of the consequences! They have broken the order of the zodiac, have overturned the known qualities of the fixed stars, the calculation of the months in the formation of the embryo, the influence and the ratios of the heavenly bodies in the course of the critical days, and other innumerable truths which depend on there being seven planets. (pp. 426–27)

Rossellini's principal emphasis, as might be expected, is on Descartes' search for a firm basis upon which to arrive at truth. The works of the ancients seem correct when studied within the walls of a library, the philosopher thinks, but less so when confronted with the multiplicity of existence. He goes off to join the Dutch army so that he will be exposed to the world: "I have decided," he tells a friend, "to reject every opinion, including my own, as if they were all false. And I have also decided that I will only accept, and only after examining them attentively with my reason, those opinions concerning which I have reached an absolute certainty" (p. 305). Watching the philosopher move restlessly from city to city and country to country throughout the film, we come to understand this movement as the physical counterpart of a ceaseless search for an intellectual place upon which to ground the working of his reason. Descartes finds his ground in the assumption of a stable, coherent self, a consciousness that is fully present to itself, that which thinks his thoughts. Nor does the film disappoint us in this regard, as we get to hear the philosopher say, "I think, therefore I am," plunging the Western world into the split between the subject and the object that has troubled philosophy ever since. What is especially ironic is that the real ground of Descartes' radical doubt, of course, is not in his consciousness at all, but in God, the transcendental signified who, the philosopher reasons, is too good to deceive our consciousness with false thoughts.

The personal element in this film is thoughtfully balanced. If it does not focus as intensely on the philosopher's life as did Pascal , clearly that is because Descartes' ideas were not as rooted in his own personality. Nevertheless, Rossellini does include most of the significant pieces of personal information known about the philosopher. For example, we see him explain his series of three


dreams (another similarity to Pascal, who also had a vision) that show him the proper course his life and his work are to take. What is especially significant about these quasimystical scenes is the importance these rational men of science invest in occult signs. In fact, Descartes was apparently even more traditionally religious than Rossellini shows him to be, for immediately after his experience with the dreams, he made a long pilgrimage to Loreto, in Italy, an episode Rossellini omits.

Wisely, Rossellini chooses to humanize his portrait of Descartes, at least to an extent. Thus, we even hear the philosopher say something incorrect, in his debate over the circulation of the blood (he believes Harvey's theory, but insists that the heart works like a boiler rather than a pump). His domestic life, as well, is less than virtuous, and we detect a certain amount of selfishness in his dealings with his valet; when the servant dies, Descartes' principal concern is what he will do without him. The philosopher immediately takes up with his serving girl Helene, whom he makes pregnant. He wants to recognize the child, but never does so openly and, in fact, sends Helene off to have the baby so that he will not get into trouble. He rarely visits them, even after the birth of the child, and scene after scene shows him departing without them for some other place in pursuit of the life of the mind. What we do see of Helene, in fact, lightens the film considerably, for what is exemplified in her constant quoting of proverbs at the philosopher is an uneducated, but far more spirited and vital, version of the traditional scholarly orthodoxy with which Descartes must contend.

Near the end of the film we come to understand how important the child has become to Descartes. In a classic opposition, the child is beautiful to the philosopher because she is "a perfect machine of nature," whereas to Helene she is a "miracle," a formulation that Descartes explicitly rejects. When the child suddenly dies, at the very end, Descartes is immensely grieved: "Along with success, God has given me the greatest sorrows. . . . Francine is dead, the light of my eyes, the reason I had come to live in this house with Helene. . . . I lived too short a time with Francine. . . . Science has kept me from living" (p. 448). Descartes ends the film by saying that from now on, "I will dwell only with myself, and live closed up inside myself, and perhaps, looking within, I will eventually, little by little, assuage the pain and confusion of these days." (At this point, Helene, ever the good domestic, having "understood his state of mind," as the stage directions tell us, "silently left the room, closing the door.") Interestingly, at the last minute Rossellini changed the final line of the original script from "I am certain of being a reality which thinks, and I know where this certainty comes from," to make it a question: "But where does this certainty come from?" (p. 448). This alteration is significant because it makes Descartes more Pascal-like (and more Rossellini-like): in spite of the immense development of human reason and its ever-increasing control of nature, something, some mystery, always lies beyond.

Cartesius was aired by the RAI on successive Wednesdays—February 20 and 27, 1974—opposite such films as Edward Dymytrk's Warlock , starring Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, and Anthony Quinn. Trasatti rightly criticizes the RAI


executives for their obsessive fear of "boring" the audience, since choosing to schedule popular fare like this against the Rossellini film virtually guaranteed that it would fail. In any case, the first episode of Cartesius was watched by 5.2 million spectators (against 17 million for a Diana Dors film), and 4.5 million watched the second (versus 18.8 million for Warlock ). The "enjoyment index" for the two episodes of Cartesius was a respectable, if not overwhelming, sixty-four and sixty-one.


Anno Uno

What Renzo Rossellini calls un anno vuoto (an empty year) followed the making of Cartesius , perhaps the most rigorous and methodologically uncompromising film of Rossellini's career. The reaction against it was so severe that the director lost even the tenuous connection he had maintained for ten years with the RAI-TV. According to his son, as soon as one film was finished, there had always been another one already in the preproduction phase. But not this time. Instead, he had to take what he could get: "The level of my father's prostitution coincided with financial need, and Anno uno came at the lowest point. After the films on Pascal and Descartes and the others, his reputation was at rock bottom; the public hated them, as well as the critics. At this point he was approached by the Christian Democrats, and he had to make this film out of economic necessity."[1]

The project was to make an "unbiased" film on the life of Alcide De Gasperi, the Christian Democrat politician who was the first prime minister of Italy following World War II, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death. Destined from the first for theatrical release, the film was produced by Rusconi Film, in the person of Edilio Rusconi, known for his right-wing views. According to Variety , the unknown Leandro Castellani was originally scheduled to direct the film, but Rusconi was finally persuaded by Amintore Fanfani, probably the most powerful man in the Christian Democrat party, to give the job to Rossellini.[2] What was especially annoying to leftists was that $1 million of the film's $1.3 million budget was guaranteed by the supposedly nonpartisan Italian state film distribution agency, Italnoleggio.

Many years earlier, in 1949, Rossellini had told an interviewer from the New


York Herald Tribune that, above all, he would not film the struggle going on between communism and democracy in his country: "There is a fight going on there between the two factions, it is true, but it is not dramatic." Strange words for Rossellini but, in any case, dramatic or not, financial exigency and the passage of time apparently convinced him of the wisdom of a return to this area of his former success (to which he had already unwillingly returned once before, in 1959–60, with General della Rovere and Era notte a Roma ). The new film's working title was Anni caldi (Years of Tension—literally, The Hot Years), and the fact that it was changed to Italia: Anno uno (Italy: Year One)—subsequently shortened to Anno uno —indicates both a desire to give the project a more "constructive" tone and to allude to Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero of twenty-five years before, and thus retrospectively to take on the aura of the early films. Variety also reported that the film was to open with the final frames of Paisan , but, in spite of the fact that the film begins with the Resistance, this idea was dropped.

It should be mentioned at this point that Rossellini's vaunted "return to cinema," inaugurated by this film, was really no such thing at all. In fact, the director explicitly stated at the time, "My new film is exactly the same as the ones made for television,"[3] and the technique of Anno uno is virtually identical to that of the other history films. The long take employed in conjunction with the Pancinor zoom is the basic unit, as usual, and the editing remains unchanged, as does the method of conveying background information. Alcide De Gasperi is played in the usual severely understated fashion by Luigi Vannucchi who, in Philip Strick's apt formulation, "merges so self-effacingly with his environment as to become almost invisible in rooms occupied by more than two people."[4] Throughout, the color is characteristically rich and saturated, and Rossellini continues to organize his mise-en-scène around tables or semicircular groups of men, which establish an inner space through which the Pancinor zoom can move. (In one scene, located in a restaurant, the director overcomes the problem of cramped space by placing the group in front of a huge mirror, thus creating a similar sense of three-dimensionality.) In other scenes Rossellini uses his standard choreographic technique of walking groups, which provides exposition while simultaneously leading the camera to discover other groups on whom it lingers momentarily, before moving again. Anno uno also has the same editor, music composer, cinematographer, and screenwriters as Rossellini's previous film, Cartesius . Therefore, this film and the next, The Messiah , though not technically made for television, can be included under this rubric. It must also be said, however, that while technique remains unchanged, the intellectual ambitions of this film are much more modest than those of the earlier history films, and subtlety is not its strong suit. Early on, for example, there is a resonant image of Socialists and Christian Democrats driving around a statue of Garibaldi, the father of Italian unity—resulting in a subtle, almost subliminal, sense of wish fulfillment. The thematic effect of the shot is diminished, however, when the camera pans back toward the statue after the car has passed, and then zooms in. Passersby also make appropriate comments linking Italy's past and present, just in case anybody in the audience has missed the point.

Italian history of the period, unsurprisingly, is considered as being more or


less synonymous with De Gasperi's aspirations and dreams for a united Italy; once again, Rossellini's concern for unity is paramount. The film opens with Resistance activities against the Nazis and Fascists in 1944, specifically the famous bombing in Rome's Via Rasella, which the Nazis answered by killing over three hundred Italians in the caves of the Fosse Ardeatine; this event epitomizes the horror of the German occupation, and has been alluded to in every Rossellini film set in that period. What follows are the immediate postwar manipulations of the various parties to tame the popular leader of the Resistance, Ferruccio Parri, and take political control themselves. Accompanying the depiction of these events are many external shots of Rome, which serve primarily as visual relief from the many unavoidably static internal scenes of discussion, but which also recall the importance of this particular city in Rossellini's career. The referendum of 1946, in which Italy passed from monarchy to republic, is followed by the decisive election of 1948, in which the Christian Democrats virtually take complete control of the government. Next comes the attempt on the life of the Communist leader Togliatti, which provokes vast protests all over Italy, but De Gasperi, through his alliances with minor parties (which has been the Christian Democrat strategy ever since), rides out this storm as well. In fact, we are made to feel quite sorry for the prime minister as he is booed by Communist crowds. Throughout, we see him working closely with the Americans, especially to keep the Communists out of government, but at the same we are led to understand that his own sympathies are principally liberal, even leftist. Thus, he works hard for European unity and shows great sympathy with the problems of the south.[5] His principal difficulties are shown to come from the right-wing of his party, which, in tandem with the Vatican, presses for an alliance with the neo-Fascists rather than allowing the Communists any power whatsoever. Perhaps his least sympathetic moment comes in 1953, when he attempts to push through Parliament what Italians called the legge-truffa (trick law), which would have given control of the government to the party with the greatest number of votes (even thirty percent, say), thus eliminating the need to form coalitions. His strategy fails, and a year later, the party shunts him aside in an emotional moment at their national convention in Naples. Quite uncharacteristically for Rossellini, the film turns rather sentimental at the end, as De Gasperi returns to his home town in the north, to die a few months later.

By this point in the director's life, despite the fact that his financial and critical failures far outweighed his successes, Rossellini's name carried immense prestige in Italy. He had been there at the beginning, after all, chronicling his country's rise from fascism and the destruction caused by the war. Thus, when the world premiere of Anno uno was held at the Teatro Fiamma in Rome on November 27, 1974, everybody who was anybody in Italian political life was present, causing editorialists to complain the following day about the stupidity of virtually the entire government gathering in one spot during this period of increasing terrorism. The president of the republic Leone came, as well as Prime Minister Mario Rumor and nearly all the heads of the various ministries. The leaders of all the major political parties were also crowded in together, including Fanfani of the Christian Democrats, Enrico Berlinguer of the Communists (who had to sit on the floor), and Giorgio La Malfa, the Republicans' chief.


No one came out of the screening happy, however, as Rossellini had once again managed to alienate everybody. Some of the negative reaction was of a piece with that occasioned by all of Rossellini's historical films: thus, the reviewer for Variety derided the "endless wordstream" that drowned out any visual interest the film might have, as well as the detached and expressionless acting (though he did admit that the original plan to star Gregory Peck in the lead role might have made things even worse). But the political reaction was even more severe. Giorgio La Malfa walked out during the intermission of the premiere, complaining of the film's "historical inaccuracies." Italian newspaper reviews, according to Variety , ranged from "bad to cruel," but the director's response was that Open City had also been panned when it was first shown, and ultimately the same success would come to Anno uno . (That success had not yet come five years later, for when I first saw the film in the summer of 1979, a violent shouting match erupted in the theater, with young people openly hissing De Gasperi's various pronouncements throughout the film.) No political party liked the portrait that Rossellini had painted, not even the Christian Democrats who had commissioned the film. Most upset, however, were the Communists, given the fact that the entire film is a chronicle of De Gasperi's success at installing the Christian Democrats in power and keeping the Communists definitively out (a situation that remains unchanged nearly forty years later). Rossellini was called a "servant of the regime," to which charge he responded angrily, "Only someone who delights in being servile could imagine somebody acting solely to make everybody happy."[6]

Rossellini's sister, one of the scriptwriters of the film, defends its anticommunism on the grounds that the Communists of the period were Stalinists, and had to be neutralized so as to prevent a totalitarian revolution. His son Renzo's interpretation is more complicated. According to him, if seen in its proper historical sequence (the director, in fact, insisted in his last years that his films should be seen in the chronological order of their subjects , not according to when they were made)—that is, after Paisan and before Europa '51 —"this film would explain better than anything else why the little boy [of Europa '51 ] kills himself and why the mother ends up in the insane asylum. This film shows how the best hopes and aspirations for the postwar period were killed by the thousand manipulations of the politicians." Renzo even insists that, in spite of the fact that the film was virtually paid for by the Christian Democrats (who had placed a censor on the set whom Rossellini won over by letting him play with the equipment), it actually presents De Gasperi negatively. Or at least De Gasperi is seen using the hopes and support of the little people all over Italy as a form of currency in political exchange, taking his orders from Washington to put the Communists out of the majority, and so on. In Stromboli and other films, according to Renzo, we see the psychological and spiritual results of this kind of cynical manipulation. It is in this sense that, for Renzo Rossellini at least, Anno uno has "a tragic and emblematic value."[7]

This argument has its merits, but it cannot stand up to the experience of watching the film. For, throughout, De Gasperi is clearly seen in a quasiheroic light; rising above the petty politics in which lesser men are mired, he takes an only slightly less exalted place alongside Rossellini's other historical figures like


Socrates and Christ. Rossellini, as usual, insisted that he was merely presenting neutral, historical information without trying to interpret, telling Claude Beylie in 1975, "It's not a political film, it's a film about politics" (as if the two could be so neatly distinguished). He also gave a clear sign of his ongoing frustration: "Naturally, it was greeted in Italy with scorn. I was dragged in the mud once again. Since I refuse to serve the politics of the moment, there was a cabal against me."[8] To an Italian audience, he said:

This film on Italian life from 1944 to 1954 allows me to remain consistent with my principles and with that work of providing historical information that I began ten years ago on television. This film departs from the usual paths in which cinema has become fossilized. I was given the opportunity to make an educational work which would reduce the horizons of our ignorance. It seemed very useful to me to look carefully once again at what happened in those years when we were in the midst of complete ruin. We can still learn a lesson from it.[9]

Beyond the new urgency to relate the film's themes to the specific political situation of the mid-seventies, the words are calm, measured, almost Olympian: the reduction of the horizon of ignorance requires only close attention to the facts. We have already seen in the other historical films that such an "objective" presentation is always impossible. What is especially noteworthy about Anno uno , however, is that by taking on a more or less contemporary subject, the inconsistencies of Rossellini's historical method are plainly revealed. Though he is making the same kind of film, with the same assumptions, we are no longer dealing with historically sanctified figures like Socrates and Pascal, in whom viewers have little personal, emotional stake and about whom they have very little information before seeing the film. With De Gasperi, all this changes; not only does every Italian, depending on his or her political affiliation, have a version of what actually happened during the ten-year period covered in the film, but many of its participants were still alive (and many of the men depicted in the film were sitting in the audience during its world premiere).

And the political battles over Rossellini, more or less dormant through the period of the historical films (once having objected fundamentally to Rossellini's method of studying history, what else was there for Marxist critics to say about each film as it appeared?), were reignited, first in the pages of the country's newspapers and then in somewhat more considered form in its film journals. Tullio Kezich, for example, an important leftist newspaper reviewer, called Anno uno a "pathetic attempt to contribute to the foundation of a Christian Democratic political culture."[10] The special problem for film journals, however, whether Catholic, modernist, or Communist, was that even within a journal opinions were mixed, and this much at least must be said for Rossellini's attempt to be neutral: there is barely a political position that one can take on this film that, looking at other evidence, cannot be easily reversed. Typical was the situation of the editors of the liberal Catholic journal Rivista del cinematografo , who, unable to decide what they thought of the film, ran two opposing articles, one strongly in favor, the other as much against. (Though these contrasting positions occurred in the context of a great and continuing admiration for Rossel-


The problematic history of the present: Alcide De Gasperi (Luigi Vannucchi)
speaks at a Christian Democrat party meeting in  Anno uno  (1974).

lini, whom the editors mention alongside De Gasperi as "two of the most important names in the last thirty years of Italian history.")[11] For the Communist Cinema nuovo , the film "unintentionally describes with crude realism the collapse of a myth, that is, the myth of Rossellini as eternal master and greatest author of neorealism." Furthermore, the film is seen as one more example of the current "fascination for fascism": "It celebrates the death of cinema and of conscience and of every progressive ideology." This critic also attacks the film for seeing history as the "product of the attitudes of political 'personalities.'"[12] He is right here, for while Rossellini clearly wants to make a film on De Gasperi's ideas, the figure himself cannot help but become valorized and even heroic in the process. After all, in a film that is more or less conventionally structured in narrative terms, ideas can be embodied only through personalities, and this embodiment can never be an innocent act. Thus, the American critic Tag Gallagher misses the point, I think, when he naively echoes Rossellini's view that this film should be considered a film on politics, rather than a political film: for him, Rossellini "holds up an idealized political theory and method as a model for his nation (and the world) today."[13] When "an idealized political theory" is put in the mouth of a specific politician, from a specific party, during a specific period, however, it always inevitably becomes something else.


Perhaps the most sophisticated attack on the film is the article by Sandro Zambetti published in Cineforum .[14] His initial complaint is that, since everything is seen from De Gasperi's perspective, much more information should have been provided to contextualize the events; newspaper headlines and small groups of politicians acting as De Gasperi's straight men are simply not enough. His principal criticism, however, is that Rossellini fails in his attempt to go beyond the standard methods of teaching history to the young, or the picture books published on important historical figures. As usual, Rossellini is presenting a specific point of view, in this case, "that of the De Gasperi centrism as democratic and secular choice, a firm rejection of fascism, but also a dignified resistance to any sort of religious collusion, a vigilant opposition to every attempt of the left to move the balance of power from the parliament to the streets, but also a noble opening to the social petitions of the country" (p. 22).

This is Rossellini's view of De Gasperi's politics, and it is also the historical view of itself that the Christian Democrat party has always fostered, even up to the present day—the middle road between the "two extremisms." Zambetti's telling critique is that this nonposition has served merely to fill a lack of any real Christian Democratic philosophy. The leading members of the party are right to insist that they are De Gasperi's heirs, since they have added nothing to his views; their continual urge to present themselves as the "party of the center" is meant to disguise what they have always been from the beginning, and continue to be: "the only right-wing politics possible in Italy, conservatism cloaked in moderation and with a touch of reformist cosmetics" (p. 23).

By making this film from their point of view, Zambetti continues, Rossellini is guilty of continuing to promote this image of the Christian Democrats:

Next to the democratic De Gasperi, who refuses to exploit to its limits the absolute majority of the April 18 [, 1948,] election, preferring instead to rely on the collaboration with the other centrist parties, what is lacking is the De Gasperi of the "trick law." Or rather, he is there, but justified by the Jesuitical line of one of his party colleagues ("It's not a trick law: if the left would have won, they would have taken advantage of it too" as if the law had not been specifically written to exclude such a possibility). (p. 24)

We see the De Gasperi who wants to limit the power of the Vatican over the party, insisting on the party's laicism, but we do not see the De Gasperi who depended so heavily on the clergy's harangues from the pulpit to convince the people to give the Christian Democrats their overwhelming majority on April 18. We see the De Gasperi tortured by the problems of the south, but not the De Gasperi who does nothing about them. And so on.

According to Zambetti, the director resolves all of these problems by giving us a good man , over and over, a man weighed down by the incredible tasks that are continually thrust upon him. "At the center of the stage there is not a statesman and a politician, but a good man who, by chance, heads the government and guides a party." Rossellini shows the "suffering of power" that is part of the traditional baggage of the saintly figure:

An anthology of virtues, in short, which we will not call into doubt, but of which it is necessary to say that it serves once more to displace the discourse


from the political level to the moral level, asking the spectator to become aware not so much of the political acts of the protagonist, but of the good intentions with which he has undertaken them and the principles which have inspired him, all the things which transform ten years of history which we should be concerned about into ten years of spiritual exercises. And which, above all, remove the politics of the Christian Democrats from debate, guaranteeing them in advance with the little flowers of De Gasperi. (p. 25)[15]

This time, then, history was simply too close. Its recalcitrant and disjunctive particulars had not yet been sufficiently forgotten or repressed, as they had been in all the other films of this period, to allow Rossellini to work his essentialist magic.


The Messiah

Given his lifelong interest in the probably impossible task of uniting Marx and Jesus, politics and religion, it is fitting that Rossellini's last two major projects concerned biographies of Christ and Karl Marx. Only the first of these, The Messiah , was completed, however, and legal entanglements have kept it from general release for over a decade. This is unfortunate, for though The Messiah is not a flawless film, it is a great one. For one thing, since its subject is usually conceived of in apolitical terms, the inconsistencies of Rossellini's historical method are perhaps less bothersome than they are elsewhere.[1] Furthermore, the director's treatment of the all too familiar story is refreshingly astringent, and the typical strategies of dedramatized acting and antispectacular mise-en-scène here find their perfect subject. Rossellini's interest in the "essential image" also reaches its zenith, resulting in a new emphasis on visual beauty, and Mario Montuori's striking compositions and luminous color photography, coupled with the magnificent Tunisian locations, easily make this Rossellini's most beautifully photographed film.[2]

Different stories are told about how the film came to be made. In some of his interviews (which abound on this film), Rossellini gives the impression that he simply wanted to do a life of Christ and, not finding any backers, went ahead on his own. More likely is the story, reported in Variety and the New York Daily News , of one Father Peyton, an elderly Irish priest who had lived in the United States for many years. Well known for his evangelizing activities on 7radio and television in the late forties and early fifties, Father Peyton is the author of the famous slogan "The family that prays together stays together." According to the Daily News of October 14, 1975, Father Peyton wanted "not just another movie


on Christ, but one that would 'make people love Him,'" and for that he wanted the best filmmaker he could find, "whatever the cost." He asked the advice of "Hollywood Catholics like Mike Frankovich and Gene Kelly and made a special plea to his patroness, the Blessed Virgin. Within 48 hours, he was in the home of Rossellini." (Another version has it that the Virgin appeared to Father Peyton in his sleep and told him to get the "best filmmaker in the world: Roberto Rossellini.") The Daily News story continues: "'I poured out my dream to him,' Peyton recalls in his lilting Irish brogue. 'I said would you be interested? And indeed he was.' . . . It was Rossellini who suggested signing their agreement while before Michelangelo's Pieta [sic ] in St. Peter's Basilica."

Renzo, the director's son, however, has said it was Father Peyton who made the suggestion about the signing, and they decided to humor him.

Father Peyton read the terms of the contract out loud to the Virgin. All the Japanese tourists were wildly photographing this rather bizarre scene. Then Father Peyton got us all to kneel down—it was the first time for me in my adult life—and began praying the rosary. My father and I, terribly embarrassed, mumbled our way through the responses, because we didn't know the correct ones. And thus the ten-page contract was signed in front of the Virgin.[3]

According to Variety (October 15, 1975), the $4.5 million budget, clearly the biggest Rossellini ever had to work with in his entire life, was divided between Family Theater, Father Peyton's group, and Orizzonte 2000, Rossellini's production company. Father Peyton retained the rights in North and South America and wherever English is the principal language, but all other rights were ceded to the director. The Daily News cheerfully reported that Father Peyton would stick to the financial end of things, leaving the creative aspects "entirely to Rossellini." Peyton was predicting that the film would be "beautiful and heartrending," and, the article continued, "Rossellini has earned Peyton's undying respect, as an artist and a man: 'He's a friend of the Lord. He wants this to be the crown of his life' " (p. 52).

Well, hardly undying, for once Father Peyton saw the completed film, the clearly frivolous distinction between the "financial" and the "creative" disintegrated. It was judged to be poorly put together, too long, and too boring; apparently what was especially disappointing, despite the fact that Father Peyton had told Variety that it was not to be a "religious film," was the lack of miracles and the absence of God's voice at the appropriate moments. The De Rance Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a Catholic distribution company associated with Father Peyton, refused to allow the film to be shown anywhere in North or South America. When critic Eric Sherman, on the selection board for the Los Angeles-based Filmex festival, tried to screen Rossellini's version of the picture in 1978, the De Rance Corporation got a restraining order, claiming that they wanted to cut thirty minutes of the film, rearrange the scenes, and add a voice-of-God narration. According to Sherman, they also persuaded Thomas McGowan, one of the makers of Born Free , to sign an affidavit attesting that Rossellini's version would definitely be reviewed negatively and would therefore endanger


De Rance's $1.5 million investment in the film.[4] (McGowan told Variety [May 3, 1978] only that he had been hired to "perfect the English language version," the cost of which he estimated at another $100,000.) Suits and countersuits were filed, and the film, apart from scattered showings of the Rossellini family's print at college campuses and elsewhere, has yet to be released in the United States.

Many of the trademarks of Rossellini's historical period are in evidence, though the luxury of a larger budget results in a definite shift of technique. Among the typical emphases we find a desire to give us a "real-life" Christ, one who was familiar with work. (Rossellini even has him deliver one of his sermons while doing some carpentry.) In the interests of historical documentation, we are shown a perhaps overly graphic display of Jewish sacrificial slaughter. The handclapping game played by the little boys, which is actually Tunisian, feels authentic even if it is not. Similarly, we see fishermen casting nets, Mary making bread, and other constant emphases on the unspectacular events and activities of daily life. Much of this quotidian imagery derives almost directly from Acts of the Apostles (1969), as does the film's emphasis on community, and just as in that earlier film, the miraculous and the spectacular are indeed decidedly muted. For example, the scene of Christ walking on the water is omitted, as is the usually mandatory and highly emotional via crucis , Christ's carrying his cross to the site of his crucifixion on Golgotha. For Rossellini, including the latter scene would have been not only too dramatic, but also inessential when compared with Christ's words.

In an interview with the editors of Filmcritica , Rossellini elevated this antispectacular technique almost into a metaphysics, saying that he wanted

a reconstruction of everyday life, of the most normal data, and then to set the event in this context. Everything then becomes extremely simple. . . . This data is the reality on which everything is based. All the parables, even though they have an abstract meaning, aren't really abstract in the least; they all refer to the small facts of everyday life, the facts that we have lost, that we no longer know.[5]

He goes on to link this concretization with the aesthetics of the zoom itself, which is able to "furnish a great quantity of contextual data." By means of what is perhaps a less than innocent subjectivist misreading of Marx, he even claims for the long take and zoom a special neutrality, beyond that of the regular shot, that it obviously cannot have:

Marx once said a beautiful thing: "The concrete is the synthesis of many determinations." If you want to get to the concrete, you must present a quantity of determinations which everyone can synthesize according to his own personality, his own nature. The plan-séquence allows me to present all this data, without falling into the "privileged" point of view of the fixed shot (pp. 126–27).

Matching this typical dedramatized presentation of "facts" is Rossellini's portrayal of a Christ who is, unsurprisingly, a thinking Christ, a humanist Christ (Rossellini told one interviewer that he saw Christ as "the perfect man," rather than as God). Accordingly, the director accentuates Christ's loving, human side


and pays little attention to the divine, especially as it might be revealed in miracles. A remark he made to the interviewer for Écran sums up his attitude perfectly: "Can you imagine, in order to think of Christ as a great man—or a great God, if you prefer—they had to add miracles! When actually the guy who said 'the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath' was making a political statement of fundamental importance."[6]

Rossellini's Christ is the logocentric Christ incarnate in the Word of the Gospels, and thus, again, the director does not attempt to "capture" the period itself, but rather to adapt the Gospels, the already clearly mediated contemporary report of that period. Rossellini, in fact, insisted on his fidelity to the Gospels, claiming to have "put Jesus' words in the foreground."[7] The viewer also comes to re-appreciate in this context Rossellini's inclusion of temps mort: when "nothing happens" on the screen, one is forced to attend, perhaps for the first time, to what the familiar words actually mean and what they might have meant within the social and religious context of the era. Rossellini's displacement of some of Christ's words to the apostles and disciples who surround him is further evidence that, as Claudio Sorgi has pointed out in an excellent essay, "the true protagonist of the entire film is the Word of Jesus, as the penetrating, clear, incontestable realization of the ancient word. A word that is received by the disciples, taken up, and amplified."[8] It should also be pointed out that Rossellini's insistence on the actual "real" words of the Bible whenever possible paradoxically almost guarantees the artificiality and stiffness—the lack of "realism"—that many have complained about in this film. The words of the Bible are written words, after all, and will never sound like actual speech. The result of this strict adherence to biblical language is a further self-reflexive distancing that accords well with the film's general strategy of dedramatization.

What also interests Rossellini about the Word is its relation to law, just as we saw in Acts of the Apostles . In fact, Christ sees his principal role, as did the apostles in the earlier film, as providing a reinterpretation of the law. Similarly, we are encouraged to understand Christ in terms of Jewish customs, and in one scene, Mary carefully rehearses these traditions for the child Jesus. The director especially stresses the tradition of messianism (as is evident in the film's title), exploring its sources by opening the film in 1050 B.C., far earlier than most conventional depictions. With the larger budget, the magnificent zoom now moves through an entire desert, onto a small nomadic tribe, situating it in its geographical and historical context (a thematically important shot whose effect would have been greatly decreased on a television screen; in spite of what Rossellini says in interviews, in other words, the increased financial backing is making the director think more "cinematically"). The dialogue that ensues explains the roots of messianism, the longing of a people for the "king who will bring justice." Throughout the film we are given much more information about Jewish history than is usual, and we come to share the Jews' burning desire to be free from Roman domination and their fear of being destroyed as a race. Though some have suggested that The Messiah , like Acts of the Apostles , is anti-Semitic in tone (which is, strictly speaking, unavoidable if one faithfully follows the New Testament), this is, in fact, the first film on the life of Jesus to treat seriously and in any real depth the Jewish tradition from which Christ sprang. Throughout,


the Jews' motives are always seen as historically complex, and their rejection of Christ, at least from their point of view, completely justifiable.

Christ's life, furthermore, is placed firmly within this context. In the depiction of his early years, for example, he and his family are seen almost exclusively as members of a community; he is little more than another boy among many. Rossellini's penchant for radical understatement works perfectly in this regard, revitalizing tired views of overfamiliar events by purposely making them mundane. The Nativity happens in seconds, nearly in the dark, in an out-of-the-way corner. Like Louis XIV and Pascal, Christ must struggle to win his right to the center of the screen; even after screen has been conquered, however, the Beatitudes are delivered as quickly and in as unemphasized a fashion as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. At the end, Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux-Arts" comes to mind, as the children continue to play and sing songs while a man named Jesus Christ, completely unnoticed by all but his family and friends, dies on the cross.

Similarly, the crowd scenes are decidedly un-deMillean, and no miracles are directly portrayed, though some are presented to us by ellipsis (for example, the enormous catch of fish and the later multiplication of the loaves and the fishes) and we hear of others. Thus Rossellini is not purposely negating a divine side of Christ (presumably verified by such miracles), as some Catholics critics have alleged, but is simply attempting to despectacularize his life. To viewers not accustomed to Rossellini's severely understated style, this minimalism can be disappointing. Nevertheless, the brilliance of the director's choices come to be appreciated on subsequent viewings of the film. For one thing, Rossellini assumes and even plays against what the spectator already knows (and thus the dynamic here is much different than in the other historical films); the effect is not unlike some recent productions of Shakespeare's best-known plays. Familiar scenes like the Nativity and the Crucifixion actually become notations, almost signs of the idea of the events rather than a realistic representation of the events themselves. Yet their very minimalism makes them somehow even more resonant and iconographically powerful. The Sermon on the Mount is so utterly denuded that it even comes dangerously close to becoming a visual joke: Christ steps up on a minuscule hillock, hardly more than a bump, and delivers the Beatitudes in about thirty seconds. Yet it works. Similarly, the scene at the manager is desolate, and thus feels right, and the entire scene of the Last Supper is filmed in complete silence—no words and no music—and is perhaps the most powerful version of that event ever filmed. This minimalist mise-en-scène also becomes starkly symbolic at times, as when Christ, like Socrates, is associated with the blinding light of the exteriors, and the Pharisees who seek his downfall, with the darkness of the inside.

Rossellini's technique, as mentioned earlier, is also modified in this film due to the amelioration of the usual financial difficulties. Hence, The Messiah includes many more cuts, which increase postproduction costs; obviously thinking of Rossellini's use of the zoom in a solely aesthetic way can be misleading. As Renzo Rossellini insisted quite strongly to me, the zoom and the long take were used in the earlier historical films because they were infinitely faster and therefore infinitely cheaper. (In addition to the savings brought about by the long take in the editing process, lighting and camera setups had to be done only once


for each scene, and thus a much smaller crew was required.) Of course, this does not mean that the zoom does not have any aesthetic effects, only that its use was often dictated by the most banal considerations.

The increased cutting and the greatly enlarged number of scenes (some eighty or ninety) also make The Messiah move much faster and thus seem less ponderous than some of the other history films, especially in terms of the long speeches. (Yet now a new problem arises, for the quick cuts sometimes sententiously underline what Christ says as unsubtly as if his words were accompanied by great blasts of Hollywood-style music.) Camera movement increases as well, and we are treated to many circular turns reminiscent of films like Germany, Year Zero and Fear . Now, however, the tight, claustrophobic circles of those earlier films expand to the wider circles of the apostles and Christ, which visually replicate their communal togetherness, and to the even larger circles that suggest the historical unity of an entire race. As in Vanina Vanini , Rossellini's lyrical camera movements in this film become positively Ophülsian.

The zoom, however, is by no means forgotten, and in fact is the principal means by which the film is organized spatially. Yet in this film—especially in extreme long shots, as in the shot at the very beginning of the film, mentioned earlier—the zoom now seems to flatten out perspective, to insist more strongly than ever on the two-dimensionality of the screen image. Most theorists consider this to be the usual effect of the zoom, but, as we have seen, Rossellini often counters this tendency by arranging groups and objects in semicircles that the zoom then penetrates optically, at least, to give an impression of depth and three-dimensionality. Here, however, because the vast majority of the shots are exteriors, and in enormous spaces, this effect of spatial penetration is lacking. The result of this flattening is to insist, in a stronger way than ever before, on the painterliness of Rossellini's compositions, and to suggest self-reflexively, once again, the sources of his iconography and even his choice of events to dramatize, since the visual traditions of Western art had long isolated certain "photogenic" events for treatment. A scene like Christ driving the money changers from the temple, for example, seems clearly based on late Renaissance prototypes, specifically Titian and Tintoretto.[9]

The most stunning iconographic aspect of the film, and one that has surely struck every viewer the film has ever had, is the depiction of Mary, throughout the film, as a very young woman, even an adolescent. Played by Mita Ungaro, a Roman woman who at the time of the filming was only seventeen years old, the youthful Mary blends quite easily into the narrative in the beginning of the film. By the time of Christ's death at age thirty-three, however, her youthfulness does not realistically work at all and is, in fact, quite jarring. At one point Rossellini overtly emphasizes the enigma he has created and provides its solution at the same time. This comes during what is perhaps the most visually powerful moment of the whole film: Christ has been taken down from the cross and laid on the lap of his mother, and together they form a superbly beautiful Pietà, a direct quotation of Michelangelo's famous work. The suffering, if exquisitely beautiful, Mary has the enormously long body of Christ draped across her, in a raw and courageously lengthy shot that comes close to being blatantly sexual. (Claudio Sorgi speaks of Michelangelo's marble having become flesh in Rossel-


Rossellini's Pietà  in The Messiah  (1975). (Pier Maria Rossi and Mita Ungaro.)

lini's film, and this effect is heightened by the slow zoom through or past this "icon" onto the watching men behind, perhaps the strongest effect of depth in the film.) The iconography also points to the source of Mary's youthful looks, for Michelangelo chose to make Mary as young as or younger than her son in his magnificent sculpture, and Rossellini is following the sculptor's icongraphic choice to the letter.[10] Another possible source for Rossellini's choice—and apparently Michelangelo's—is Dante, who in canto 33 of his Paradiso refers to Mary as "Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio" (Virgin mother, daughter of your son).[11]

The effect of Mary's youthfulness, in any case, is to disturb the surface realism of the film text and, like the minimalist mise-en-scène and the biblical language, to foreground its artificiality. The French critic Jacques Grant has even argued that Mary's youthfulness is a self-conscious Hollywood image, which Rossellini uses as "a moving counterpoint, upsetting and malicious, to the essence that he is looking for in the events,"[12] but this seems an idiosyncratic view. On the contrary, Mary is clearly at the heart of The Messiah and, as Mireille Latil Le Dantec has pointed out, all its feeling resides in her, for her physical and emotional trajectory is what organizes and leads us, by means of the camera that follows her, through the film.[13] She even seems to stand in for Christ during the missing via crucis: hearing of her son's being taken to Golgotha, she rushes off to be with him, falling twice in the process. One would be hard pressed to say if this was intentional or not on the director's part, but he did not reshoot the scene because of "mistakes."


One item that remains to be discussed is just how religious this film is. Many Catholic writers have claimed Rossellini for their own throughout his career, but in spite of his often overt religiosity, he has almost perversely refused to join their cause. The following exchange elicited by Jacques Grant at the end of 1975 is instructive in this regard:

Q: So you began The Messiah at a historic moment of rupture, of confrontation?

A: It's Jesus, the history of Jesus, that's all. I made The Messiah with a great deal of respect for everyone. What is great in Jesus's message is his faith in man. That is what is irreplaceable, even though I am a complete atheist.

Q: People usually think just the opposite.

A: Everyone is permitted to fool himself however he wants. If someone just wants to place me, he can always say that I am a Christian without knowing it. But one can also perhaps place oneself, and ask why one is interpreting incorrectly.[14]

In another interview Rossellini says, "I'm not religious at all. I'm the product of a society that is religious among other things, and I deal with religion as a reality."[15] But if Rossellini is uninterested in Christ as God, he is very taken, indeed, with his life and teachings. Thus, he says elsewhere of The Messiah , "I always thought that this would have to be the point of arrival. In my maniacal search for an abcedarium of wisdom I had to put down so many letters to reach, sooner or later, the highest point, the compendium of everything."[16]

This kind of sentiment was unfortunately not enough to endear the film to most religious people, however, who have generally not liked it because it is not "religious" (that is, dramatic and emotional) enough. On the other hand, political critics have opposed it because, as Lino Miccichè has somewhat unfairly insisted, it dehistoricizes Christ's message and thus "loses sight of its subversive value."[17] Once again, Rossellini occupies an awkward and hopeless position between two camps: in fact, he was unable to find a distributor for the film at first, even in Italy, and he complained bitterly about this fact in an article entitled "E reazionario parlare di Gesù?" (Is It Reactionary to Speak of Jesus?) published in the Communist-leaning daily Paese Sera on May 8, 1976. In the article he attacked the revolutionary Left, the conventional film industry, and those who wanted to be "cultural" but had old-fashioned ideas of what that meant: for him, this unlikely combination had insured the film's failure. Ultimately, Rossellini did find a distributor, but The Messiah has been seen by only a few, even on the Continent. It is to be hoped that this superb film, in many ways the climax of Rossellini's career, will be released in the English-speaking world one day—in the state in which he left it—by those whose religious vision seems so impoverished when compared with that of this self-styled atheist.


Final Projects

The Messiah was to be Rossellini's last full-length film. He had for several years been planning a biography of Karl Marx, and at the time of his death, the finished screenplay was lying on his desk. Entitled Lavorare per l'umanità (Working for Humanity), the film was to have covered Marx's earliest adult years, from 1835 (when he was seventeen years old and about to go off to the University of Bonn) to the grand revolutionary year of 1848. What strikes one above all in this venture is the delightful bravado of a seventy-year-old director deliberately challenging his leftist detractors of nearly three decades. Not only does he take on their subject, but he goes further and insists that they had got it all wrong, and that present-day orthodox Marxism has nothing whatever to do with the real Karl Marx.

Not surprisingly, Rossellini's Marx is fashioned in his own image. In his introduction to the screenplay, which was published posthumously in a special issue of Filmcritica , the director, objecting to those who interpret the word revolution solely in terms of violence, stresses instead Marx's view that "the revolutionary struggle presupposes a self-aware proletariat which becomes a class with its own thought, its own group of intellectuals, its own 'values,' and its own 'cultural models' in order to oppose them to those of the bourgeoisie."[1] Rossellini also implicitly validates his own didactic project by quoting Marx's opinion that "ignorance has never been useful to anyone" (p. 364), as well as Marx's repudiation of Willich in 1850: "While we are saying to the workers: you must go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil and international war not only to change the situation but also to change yourselves and to make yourselves suitable for political power , you are telling them: we must immediately achieve power, otherwise


we can go back to sleep" (p. 364; Rossellini's emphasis). Rossellini goes on to point out, correctly, that Marx was never simply "against" capitalism, seeing it rather as a necessary step in humankind's battle to overcome the forces of nature, and thus he was not "against" Rossellini's beloved Industrial Revolution, but merely aware of its negative aspects. He also told an interviewer for Cinéaste , in terms which will sound familiar by now, that Marx was "a very severe critic of all religious structures that served powers in government, but he considered atheism as another religion, as a prejudice. He was against any kind of prejudice, any kind of dogma. He said the important thing for man is exploration, and knowledge without dogma. That is why he was against atheism."[2]

Though he does not explicitly say so, in Rossellini's scheme of things, dialectical materialism unsurprisingly turns out to have a great deal in common with the thought of Socrates, Christ, Pascal, Alberti, Descartes, and the others, and the German political philosopher is quickly enlisted in the director's familiar exaltation of reason and "pure" knowledge. Marx and Christ are specifically joined, finally, by making Marx, like Socrates, another Christ, for all seek the same "essential truth." Despite Rossellini's obvious desire to appropriate Marx for his grand essentializing project, however, it is clear from dialogue included in his own screenplay that Marx's view of human essence was much more dynamic than his own. According to Marx:

That "human nature" is the "complex of social relationships" is the most satisfying answer, because it includes the idea of becoming: man becomes, changes himself continuously with the changes in social relationships. . . . Is my thought clear to you? Human nature is not a "unity" given at the beginning. It is a "unity" possible at the end, it constitutes itself, do you understand? It constitutes itself in history, in the "practice" of man, in his combined practical and theoretical activity of changing the world (p. 412).

Rossellini's introduction to the script was accompanied by an article entitled "L'abbecedario di Rossellini," written by Silvia D'Amico Bendicò, Rossellini's friend and collaborator during his last years. In it she traces the difficulty she and the director had choosing a particular period of Marx's long and eventful life upon which to focus. She reports that first Rossellini had opted for the period of the Paris commune (1871), an unsatisfying choice for various reasons, and then, in March of 1975: "the obvious solution: Marx and Engels from 1835 to 1848; in a word: who were Marx and Engels, how did they become Marx and Engels, and why." She reports that in six months the treatment, a very detailed one hundred pages with all the essential dialogue, "all of it rigorously taken from the 'Works' and from the letters of the protagonists," was finished. It is this document that follows in the special issue of Filmcritica .

One is thankful to have it, certainly, but it is not Rossellini's. Bendicò, in fact, claims authorship of the script (with assistance by Rafael Guzman), yet at the same time maintains, "That which is published here is the part of the screenplay which Rossellini had already read and approved" (p. 363). That may be, but the script shows few traces of the director's hand. For one thing, never in his entire life had he worked from such a detailed script; such things were written to impress producers, perhaps, but were scarcely to be taken seriously during the


actual shooting. More important, the published script contains little evidence of Rossellini's typical themes, techniques, or sensibility. Instead, endless pages are spent elaborating personal details presumably intended to humanize the characters—not an intrinsically bad thing to do, of course, but most un-Rossellinian. For example, a great deal of time is spent on Marx's relationship with his wife Jenny von Westphalen, including their growing love for one another (which is foisted upon us in the very first scene), the objections of her family, and so on. In fact, Jenny appears as much in the script as does Karl. From the very beginning, the script's emphasis is on psychologizing Marx, understanding him as a human being, and only a very few, uncharacteristically brief speeches are devoted to adumbrating his ideas. The philosopher's relationship with Engels is continually and almost exclusively shown in terms of Marx's initial crusty disapproval of the other's character and personality, which the charming Engels eventually overcomes through sheer effort. Other humanizing motifs concern Marx's anti-intellectual mother, his incessant cigar smoking, blood on his handkerchief from too much intellectual effort (à la Pascal), and his poor handwriting (commented upon three or four different times). Furthermore, while a great deal of conventional stage business is invented to make the scenes more "realistic,"[3] we see very little of Rossellini's usual accent on how the ordinary things of daily life were done, other than some passing interest shown in the printing press of Marx's newspaper Die Rheinische Zeitung . Perhaps worst of all is the heavy voice-over, which provides nearly all the exposition through a laborious explanation of the various visual bridges, a technique completely absent from the other historical films (with the exception of the more appropriate narrative voice-over, drawn from the Bible, of The Messiah ).

Other projects in the planning stages at this time included "The History of Islam" (which was projected at some twenty episodes to be filmed by young directors); the series on science that had not yet been abandoned; a film on what Bendicò calls "the advent of the civilization of the image," concerning the early photographers Niepce and Daguerre; and a biography of Rousseau. To follow were series on the American Revolution, the conquistadors, and the history of food.[4] Unfortunately, there would be time to do only two short films, two projects that could not be further apart and whose opposition is perhaps emblematic of the themes of Rossellini's final period.

The first is a fifty-five-minute documentary of sorts, commissioned by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and shot by Nestor Almendros, on the futuristic Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, known familiarly as Beaubourg. To construct this monument to high-tech, late-modernist culture, several old and colorful Parisian neighborhoods had been torn down, and one wonders what the authorities were thinking of when they entrusted this work, obviously meant to publicize Beauborg, to Rossellini. They may have been attracted to his pronouncements concerning the place of science and technology in modern life, or to his attempts to "educate" the masses, as the Centre Pompidou was meant to do. For Rossellini, however, Beaubourg represented not the forward-looking aspects of modern technological life, but everything in it that was confused, sterile, and inauthentic.

Naturally, Rossellini never overtly says, in the film, that he abhors its sub-


ject—for one thing, the film contains not a single word of explanation, and the sound track is composed entirely of aleatory sounds and voices picked up by hidden microphones. But his distaste is evident nevertheless. The film opens with a long, slow zoom back from the heart of the city, with typically urban noises filling the sound track. Finding Beaubourg in the distance, the camera nervously cuts several times to poor neighborhoods, each cut leading to a pan that rediscovers Beaubourg from a different angle. Next the film cuts to a static exterior shot of the building and then quickly inside, where the camera continually investigates and reveals—the first floor, the art gallery—as the voices of the people we see try to identify the various portraits that hang there. The camera pans the posters to identify what events are going on; there is a cut to crowds pressing against the door and then entering, as the lens zooms back to allow them space to enter. All the while the dynamic potpourri of street noises and voices on the sound track complements the restless movement of the camera. Throughout the film, in fact, the sound track is completely "natural" and stems from whatever we happen to be seeing (though, to be sure, Rossellini is carefully selecting what we see and what we hear). Long panning shots of the city from Beaubourg are followed by shots of Oldenburg's soft sculpture, as a child's voice articulates Rossellini's own often-expressed dislike of modern art by asking, "What's that good for?"

The camera is intent on showing us everything going on in the building, but always in terms of the people involved; in doing so, Rossellini seems to be trying to work against Beaubourg's sterile formalism by obsessively, and unsuccessfully, recalling it to a human scale. We move back to the art gallery and listen to the guide and the people trying to make sense of the paintings. (Typically, the camera will follow someone, then pan back to discover someone else, very casually, exactly as another spectator would see things.) The camera pans through the window to show us Sacre-Coeur. Finally, after many more minutes of apparently aimless wandering, there is a cut to the same extreme long shot that began the film, the one that shows Beaubourg placed exactly in the middle of the city. By now we understand how absolutely out of place it is, and how totally inappropriate to everything else in Paris, like Sacre-Coeur, that Rossellini sees as whole and organic. The final shot is a very slow zoom back out, a movement that does not end until the building is totally lost amid the city's haze.

In an interview Rossellini characteristically maintained that he was not interested in denouncing Beaubourg, but in merely showing it and letting it speak for itself, without his interference one way or the other: in fact, he says, the only trickery involved is that the remarks gathered by the hidden microphones were so totally negative that he had to make up positive ones so the film would be more balanced. His own view is less ambiguous, however:

I personally believe that people confuse culture and refinement. Refinement, for me, has nothing to do with knowledge. But when people speak of "culture," they really mean refinement. But before being refined, we have to be thinking beings, people who understand what it means to be man. We learn to be accountants, doctors, journalists, filmmakers, but who teaches us the principal profession, the profession of being man? Beaubourg is a flagrant thing: it is the exposition of refinement at all costs.[5]


Opposing all this sterile modernity and "refinement" is the other project of his final year, the "Concerto per Michelangelo," a RAI-sponsored Eurovision broadcast of a concert performed in the Sistine Chapel. The program was broadcast in color on Holy Saturday evening, April 9, 1977, two months before Rossellini's death, and consists of a loving tour of Michelangelo's Vatican, including the Pietà , the iconic center of The Messiah , and the cupola of Saint Peter's, Rossellini's favorite signifier of "Rome" since Open City . The main focus, however, is on the Sistine Chapel, perhaps the highest artistic expression of the director's beloved Renaissance. The program takes the form of a biography of Michelangelo's Roman period, beginning with his first call to the city in 1508. The artist's task, the voice-over informs us, was "the representation of a humanity which had fallen from its state of original purity," a task that Rossellini replicates by returning us, his confused contemporaries, to the "purity" of the Renaissance. Complicated chronological and thematic links are made among the various subjects that Michelangelo dealt with, and thus we see the ever-youthful Virgin of the Pietà as the new Eve, who represents the sufferings of all humanity, and the Last Judgment and the Pietà are related by focusing on the angels holding the instruments of Christ's passion in the former. We then hear a concert of polyphonic sacred music sung by the choir, as the camera seeks out connections between the visual program in the chapel and the words of the music. The camera then moves outside of the chapel to focus on Michelangelo's turn away from painting and sculpture toward architecture. We are told by the voice-over:

Obsessed by thoughts of death, tormented by his anxieties, Michelangelo sought peace and quiet, and aspired toward serenity. Painting and sculpture, with which he had wanted to translate into images the high mystic fervor achieved through his religiosity, no longer satisfied him. Architecture opened for him a new way toward a greater catharsis, offered him the possibility of definitively transforming the aesthetic discourse into an ethical and moral one.[6]

One can easily imagine these words applying as well to the entire trajectory of Rossellini's career, especially the movement from personal artistic expression to the mathematical grandeur and architectural simplicity of the great didactic project.

Next the film moves to the Cappella Paolina, the Vatican grotto (where the death theme continues in the many tombs we see), and the construction of the great dome of Saint Peter's. The camera cuts from the interior of the basilica to a beautiful panoramic shot of Rome itself. How very appropriate that Rossellini's career should end precisely where, practically speaking, it began—the city and the dome of Saint Peter's—like the final bittersweet, simultaneously hopeful and hopeless shot that ended Open City thirty-two years before. We return, finally, to the interior of Saint Peter's, the camera shooting down from the dome as the chorus of the alleluia rises to its climax. The film closes with a shot of Michelangelo's self-portrait in the Last Judgment (as the skin of Saint Bartholomew), and his words taken from a letter to Giorgio Vasari: "Nothing remains for me to do except to return to Florence ready to rest in death, whom I seek to become accustomed to so it won't treat me any worse than other old men."[7]



In May, a month after the broadcast of "Concerto per Michelangelo," Rossellini went to the Cannes film festival, where, to his great surprise, he had been asked to be president of the jury. True to form, he insisted that an informational panel on the financing of films be set up before he would consent. While at the festival, he fought hard that the Taviani brothers' Padre padrone be awarded the grand prize, not so much because he liked the film itself (though he did), but because it had originally been made for television. He wanted, to the very end, to break down the artificial barriers between cinema and television that he knew could only harm both. Returning exhausted from Cannes, he began working on an article for Paese Sera . In the article he spoke of his first contact with the "cinema" in fifteen years; he was excited that he had been able to see for himself what was going on in that world he had left behind. What he had discovered, however, was that the cinema of the auteur had been reduced to "navel gazing": "Many so-called auteurist films are pure exercises in a useless and schizophrenically personal aestheticism," he wrote. On the other hand, even worse were the purveyors of the entertainment products of sex and violence. What bothered him the most, though, were the complaints he heard concerning the "crisis" of the cinema. As he pointed out in the article, if television were included, one would quickly realize that there was no crisis at all, but that audiences were larger than ever: "Through an enormous error of vision, or of perspective, many take as a crisis that which in reality is a boom."[8] Now that Padre padrone had won, the first time ever for a film made outside the power group of the commercial cinema industry, he insisted, the problem would be distribution, the final way to block new ideas.

But the article was not to be finished. As he was about to leave his apartment to do some errands on the afternoon of June 3, 1977, Rossellini suffered a massive heart attack and died within minutes. He was seventy-one years old, but not yet done with life.

The ironies and tensions of his life and career continued after his death. In homage to his films on the Resistance, and especially since it was known that he was working on a film about Marx, the Communists claimed him for their own, displaying his body at the Communist Culture House, amid bouquets of bright red flowers. The family insisted on a Church funeral, however, given Rossellini's lifelong interest in religion, and the nation was treated to the unusual spectacle of Enrico Berlinguer, the head of the Communist party, attending Rossellini's funeral mass at Sant'Ignazio. Even more surprisingly, he sat next to Aldo Moro, the most powerful man in the Christian Democrat party, and the architect of the famous "historic compromise," which was designed to bring the Communists into the government for the first time in Italian history. Perhaps the wish of Open City , the union of priest and partisan, was about to be fulfilled after all. But it was not to be. Within the year, Moro was kidnapped and assassinated by members of the Red Brigades. Anxious to make a symbolic point, they left his


body exactly halfway between the Roman headquarters of the Communist party and the Christian Democrat party, and the historic compromise was dead as well.

It is significant that Rossellini was claimed by both groups, for in truth he was of neither, this religious atheist and bourgeois revolutionary, preferring always to make his own highly individualistic way in the world. In his art or craft, as well, he was a victim of wrong expectations; from the commercial filmmaking establishment, who wanted him to be commercial, from the political and avantgarde, who wanted him to be those things. What is perhaps most tragic and most sublime about his wonderful, failed career, is, once again, that he was neither, or both, the supreme example of the modernist artist working in a commercial medium that clung desperately to the narrative and dramatic forms it had inherited from the nineteenth century. As such, Rossellini's career remains perhaps the perfect emblem of the frustrating contradictions and unique glories of cinematic art.


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