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

29— La Lotta dell'Uomo per la Sua Sopravvivenza (1964–70)

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]


29— La Lotta dell'Uomo per la Sua Sopravvivenza (1964–70)

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