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

36— Cartesius (1974)


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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

HUYGENS: Nothing! Truly nothing!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


36— Cartesius (1974)

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