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

33— Blaise Pascal (1972)

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.


33— Blaise Pascal (1972)

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