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

27— Introduction to the History Films

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.


27— Introduction to the History Films

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