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39— Final Projects (1975–77)
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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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39— Final Projects (1975–77)
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