BluRay/DVD Reviews

ROSSELLINI’S HISTORY FILMS: RENAISSANCE AND ENLIGHTENMENT

By • Apr 29th, 2009 •

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Roberto Rossellini loped past Gem Spa and the benches by St. Mark’s Church every afternoon, not so much observing the world around him as existing in the moment, his movements precise yet quietly joyous. I recall attending a seminar he gave at NYU film school in the early 70’s. After class, Rossellini would walk uptown on Second Avenue to the Orchadia. Owned by an Italian and Ukranian couple, this was the only place in Manhattan where one could get spaghetti and meatballs along with pirogi on the same plate. (Rossellini insisted the pasta there was better than anywhere in Rome.)

Once he showed us the penultimate scene from THE AGE OF THE MEDICI on a flat-bed editing table. On the diminutive flickering screen, Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance antiquarian and architect, was lecturing on perspective before a series of mirrors. Suddenly, the person playing Alberti swooped towards a large glass panel and his face, distorted and huge, peered directly at us. I asked Rossellini how he had achieved that effect. “It’s very simple,” he said. “I just told the actor to look for the camera.”

Now Criterion, under the imprint of their Eclipse label, has released three of the Italian master’s late history films in a boxed set, so I’m able to write about some of the images and impressions that have been with me these many years. In particular, I recall Rossellini telling me his history films detailing the origins of Western culture – featuring figures like Socrates, Pascal and Colbert – were made for the future. “I feel in the near future what we call Western civilization will no longer exist,” Rossellini said. “Instead, the leaders of the world will be from Africa or Asia, and I wanted to leave behind a sense of what we Europeans have achieved, not in monuments or riches, but through the birth of a new kind of consciousness, something that is discernable only in the mind, and therefore present only by showing the daily lives of people.”

Although Rossellini’s influence on other directors was immeasurable, by the end of his life he seemed to despair of being called a filmmaker. Instead, he preferred “artisan-craftsman,” linking the cinema with the communal, often anonymous creation of images during the Renaissance, where the intersection of faith and geometry created limitless possibility

Paradoxically, by abandoning fictional film and attempting to create something more objective, Rossellini made his most exquisitely personal work. In the early 60’s (for the film VIVA ITALIA, about the life of Garibaldi) Rossellini had a zoom lens with a joystick designed, so he could lovingly swoop and then pull back across faces and landscapes without stopping or cutting in real time.

Rossellini’s camera fragments space while searching for symmetry in opposing figures and complementary colors, involving the viewer in its ever-changing gaze. This also inscribes the viewpoint of the director as he seemingly moves his camera extemporaneously across non-professional actors chosen for their resemblance to portraits from the period and historical buildings clearly photographed in the present moment.

It is this sense of spontaneity in Rossellini’s camera style that makes these films so compulsively watchable. Here we do not only have history transformed into the “now” of our own contemporary reality, but Rossellini’s personal take on this history expressed as composition and camera movement.

Like music, these shots often develop without interruption, taking on the rhythm of one’s heartbeat. While the use of long takes that evolve over time links Rossellini to what was happening in early 70’s avant-garde European cinema, such as the experiments of Jean-Marie Straub that purposefully challenge an audience’s attention span, Rossellini’s history films were intended for a large popular audience and were originally shown on television. Rossellini’s focus is often on the “common people”, who act as a Greek chorus and question the protagonist as well as comment on the action. They are also often the most interesting and sympathetic characters.

Someone, I no longer remember who, said movies were the only art form in which you could see death in action. As we sit at home or in the theatre, we watch people age, moment by moment. A gloomy thought, but nonetheless a valid one, especially in the context of Rossellini’s process of investigating the past by means of continuous takes in real time. As we watch the actors in Rossellini’s history films age, we also listen to them recite the documents and discoveries of a past time. With this in mind, Rossellini’s images might possibly allow a contemporary audience to imagine this past time as their own reality, communicating a simple understanding of the times and personalities in question.

THE AGE OF THE MEDICI

THE AGE OF THE MEDICI plays like a cross between THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE GODFATHER in its detailing of the often violent intrigues between the Medici family and the noble Albizzi family amid the transformation of Florence into a hub of artistic and mercantile activity. Rossellini’s Florence, brought to life by a myriad of matte and mirror shots, is a kind of Quattrocento Emerald City, a place where almost anything can happen, and usually does. The film is filled with magical moments, especially at the beginning, where a group of riders disappear into a matte shot of a 15th Century etching of Florence superimposed on a natural landscape of trees and grassy knolls.

As in THE GODFATHER (released the same year, 1972) THE AGE OF THE MEDICI begins with a public ceremony – in this case the funeral of Cosimo de Medici’s father, Giovanni – where all the main characters are introduced. In particular, we meet llarione de’ Bardi (John Stacy), the “consigliere” to the Medici family (similar to the role played by Robert Duvall in Coppola’s film) and Rinaldo delgi Albizzi (Tom Felleghy), the leading noble in Florence who manipulates the Signoria, the ruling democratic council, behind the scenes (like Don Barzini in THE GODFATHER) and is committed to Cosimo’s destruction.

At this time, the city of Florence, under the control of the Albizzi family, was involved in a bloody war with Lucca, mostly because the Albizzi were looking for new sources of income so they could compete with the Medici. Through the instigation of Cosimo’s agent de’ Bardi, an anti-war feeling is aroused, especially among workers and merchants who are tired of paying high taxes and also complaining about the poor business war invariably brings. (The fact this film was made during the later stages of the Vietnam war gives these scenes a very contemporary feeling.)

The Albizzi, clinging to power at all costs, has Cosimo arrested under trumped-up charges, with the intention of having him executed. At the last minute, however, de’ Bardi bribes the Gonfalonier (the “mayor” of Florence) with a purse of 250 gold pieces, and Cosimo is sent into exile instead. The Albizzi, concerned that a new Signoria – the council was replaced every year from the names of citizens drawn at random – will be more hospitable towards Cosimo, takes to the streets in an armed uprising.

Like Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER, Cosimo is a somewhat haunted figure, sympathetic yet capable of the most heinous acts in the name of business and family. Cosimo begins with a veneer of idealism, and then becomes increasingly pragmatic as the film progresses. The actor playing Cosimo, Marcello de Falco, shows his character’s transformation through shifty sidelong glances, putting one in mind of Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi. (Mr. Di Falco had worked at a restaurant Rossellini frequented. In spite of the theatrical nature of his mannerisms, they seem perfectly appropriate in this context.)

Leon Battista Alberti (Virginio Gazzolo), antiquarian and architect, who is the other major character besides Cosimo, first appears as a young man in Donnatello’s studio, asking questions about form and its connection to ordinary experience. A curate working for the Pope, who is in exile in Florence because of an ongoing war, Alberti becomes enmeshed in the creative life of the city. These sequences, in their mixture of daily life along with the inebriation of artistic inspiration, are similar in feeling to James Joyce’s novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In particular, I want to point out a moment where Alberti and a fellow scholar walk along the banks of a river. Women are washing clothes that hang along the ancient walls that edge the water. While Alberti’s friend recites a poem about the pleasures of lovemaking, Rossellini’s camera zooms out among the wet garments of yellow and red amid smiling faces. In a way, Alberti can be seen as a kind of mirror figure to Cosimo, becoming more expansive as Cosimo turns more inward. At the film’s conclusion, Alberti is teaching Lorenzo, Cosimo’s grandson, among the ruins of ancient Rome. “Acting is the only possible outcome of knowing,” Alberti says, as if speaking to each of us directly.

What Rossellini uses as both metaphor and guiding principle is Renaissance painting, that extraordinary amalgam of scientific investigation and intuitive artistry, taking its inspiration from the human figure, so both form and feeling are in perfect balance. About halfway through the film, Alberti is a guest at Cosimo’s country house, and they attend a church service at the Collegiata in nearby San Gimignano. On either side of the nave are frescoes detailing the life of Christ. Stretching from floor to ceiling, the paintings, produced in the middle 1300’s by Lippo Menni and Bartolo di Fridi, have that mysterious quality of late-gothic painting where impulse and idea are merged inexplicably, so that Christ is simultaneously human being and concept, icon and emotion. As a priest gives a sermon attacking the then current fashion of reading ancient secular texts, Rossellini slowly zooms back while tracking forward through the parishioners, creating a vertiginous sensation in a viewer not unlike the emotion expressed in the frescoes. Suddenly, the camera pans upward and over to the back wall of the church, where a gigantic fresco of Christ ascending resides. Painted about 100 years later by Benuzzo Gozzoli, a follower of Fra Angelico, this image of Christ naked is much more intimate, not to mention tenderly realistic. Instead of theology, the contour and consciousness of a human being has taken over the representation of Christ. One senses an immense change, not only in painting, but in the way people live and think.

In other words, Rossellini’s method in these history films is not blind immersion, but instead demands that viewers become collaborators, making sense intellectually, if not emotionally, of the ideas and images put before them. Because of this, Rossellini is able to show the “strangeness” of history, not only by photographing the 1400’s in the harsh light of the everyday ca. 1972, but also in presenting the Renaissance as a harsh break with the past, one that seems to have little hope of surviving. Throughout the film’s four hour plus running time, characters constantly refer to the art, philosophy and banking practices of the time as “pure folly” and being “against God and nature.” Armies rise up to crush the Medici, religious leaders attack much of the “new” art as heretical, yet somehow this movement, funded by gold florins and instigated by the inquisitive natures of Florence’s artists and scientists, comes to define an age.

I would like to briefly address the acting, in which the performers, many of them non-professionals, recite Renaissance texts objectively, rather than inhabiting the characters and investing the words with invented emotion. I admit at first it’s odd to see Italians not gesturing and raising their voices, but then again, this is probably not something that Florentine nobles did anyway. Besides, who can say how people in the Renaissance actually behaved? Although this is initially off-putting, it makes more sense to present these texts for what they are, rather than pretend these are intimate conversations being overheard, as is the case with most historical films. (I can’t help but be reminded of the London Times review of THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, in which the critic wrote: “Michelangelo had a hunchback and was also homosexual. In this film he is played by Charlton Heston.”)

For most of his career, Rossellini was opposed to conventions of naturalistic acting, generally hiring non-professionals. Even when he worked with Hollywood actors, Rossellini directed them in ways that often went against their training. For instance, during the making of VOYAGE IN ITALY (1954), Ingrid Bergman (according to George Sanders’ autobiography) was upset that Rossellini simply told her to look without emotion to the right or left, instead of letting her play a character.

While Eclipse’s mission is to provide no-frills versions of neglected films without the full restoration of regular Criterion releases, the transfer on display here has a brilliance and sheen I’ve never seen before, even in the film’s initial 35mm screening at MOMA in 1972. The focus is wonderfully sharp, the colors crisp and sensuous, the reds in particular perfectly balanced. I could also detect very little grain. (The matte shots of Florence do have some registration issues, but that was a problem with the initial photography.) The Italian soundtrack is very dynamic, although the English track is a trifle hollow, with some slight echo. (Again, that was present when the film was first screened.)

Ultimately, it’s not the subject matter, but the way Rossellini is engaged by his subject and responds cinematically that interests me. I’m sure this would have saddened Rossellini, as I think he was attempting to transcend the trap of imagery and all that entails in our consumer culture. The story Rossellini has to tell in THE AGE OF THE MEDICI is fascinating, not to mention his characters – from the ambiguous banker Cosimo de Medici, transforming the laws of his society in order to find new markets for trade while making possible the creation of artworks, buildings and scientific investigations in a frenzy that hadn’t been seen since Ancient Rome; to the architect Alberti, striving for a method that merges the verities of the past with the sudden sense of necessity the present brings. Still, THE AGE OF THE MEDICI compels me to watch not as a work of education nor scientific investigation but as cinema. And it is as a work of cinema (with apologies to its maker) that I give this film my highest rating. In its visual style, THE AGE OF THE MEDICI is an epic that is constantly in the process of reinventing itself – as painting, as theatre, and as a document of its own making – paralleling the film’s subject about the invention (or if you like, collective improvisation) of what we call the Renaissance.

(*****)

BLAISE PASCAL

Not being French Catholic, I don’t know much about the hero of Rossellini’s film, other than his influence on Eric Rohmer movies; MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S especially, where the luscious Francoise Fabian attempts to seduce Jean-Louis Trintignant, he of the furrowed brow and delicate chin, by making him stay up half the night to discuss Pascal. Although MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S was a huge art house hit in New York, I doubt if many people in the audience were familiar with what was being discussed, and simply assumed it was typical French bedroom chatter.

In Blaise Pascal, Rossellini has found an sympathetic and characteristically complex figure, a man of science whose mind takes him beyond the orthodoxies of his time while his soul attempts to penetrate the mysteries of God and faith. Pascal, in addition to writing the Pensées, one of the cornerstones of Catholic theology in France, also discovered the existence of the vacuum, which was then considered against the teachings of the church, for how – as the Priests ask Pascal in Rossellini’s film – can God exist in a vacuum? In a way, Christ and the vacuum are similar, for neither can be seen, although their existence is felt, the latter in nature, while the former impresses itself upon men’s minds (or at least, this would be the argument of a Catholic.) What interests a contemporary audience (and I think Rossellini) is not the ultimate certitude of Pascal’s theology, but rather the uncertainty of a rational man grappling with the idea of faith, continually faced by an existential vacuum that dogs his footsteps and is expressed in this film by the expressive camera, reframing the actors and thereby redefining the reality of what we are seeing (while suggesting the changing perceptions of reality the main character is going through.)

Whereas THE AGE OF THE MEDICI, in its attempt to visually evoke the contradictory impulses of the Renaissance, might be described as a cross between a Kabuki performance and a musical by Minnelli, Rossellii’s portrait of Blaise Pascal is much closer to the work of Robert Bresson, intimate, severe and mysterious. The performances, especially Pierre Arditi as an ardent but sympathetic Pascal, are much more realistic and low-key than the off-putting yet surprisingly affecting acting found in THE AGE OF THE MEDICI.

BLAISE PASCAL is set in the French village of Rouen in 1639, where Blaise’s father Etienne, accompanied by his son and daughter, has arrived to work as a tax supervisor for King Louis. The film begins with Pascal as a scientific thinker, solving an “impossible” geometry problem at the age of 18. Pascal, unfortunately, had a debilitating illness for most of his life that made even the simple act of writing words on a page a deep and unending struggle. The theme of the film is similar in feeling if not incident to Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground, with the main character losing everything that has meaning in his life, and rediscovering the essence of his being in a relationship with a God that is simultaneously unfathomable yet intrinsically close, a mystery that can never really be satisfactorily resolved.

BLAISE PASCAL takes us into the heart of darkness of the Counter Reformation’s renewed religious fervor alongside the intimations of our modern age due to increased scientific investigation – typified by Galileo, who was forced to recant his discovery that the earth revolved around the sun to avoid being burnt at the stake. It’s a little hard to believe the events in this film took place only 350 years ago, as the mind set of most of the characters are focused on superstition. When a child of a shop owner refuses to kiss his father, for instance, the townspeople ascribe this behavior to witchcraft and set about to find the guilty party. In its ability to evoke feelings of horror and fascination, these scenes are similar to watching Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, where seemingly rational people are possessed by aliens.

While the camera in BLAISE PASCAL often seems to be floating on air, it does so in order to penetrate into the soul of the film’s characters, a slow and delicate dance that focuses our attention on the inner life of Pascal by an immersion in the physical world around him. For example, during the trial of a witch in the beginning of the film, the zoom lens compresses space, keeping Pascal on the edge of the frame behind the accused as she confesses to fantastic things that Pascal, from his expression, finds impossible to believe. As the accused witch continues to speak, the camera zooms in even closer, turning the figures around her into elongated shadows, evoking the intensity of a spiritual experience, whether sacred or profane, it is impossible to tell.

Unlike the complexities – both narrative and stylistic – of THE AGE OF THE MEDICI, BLAISE PASCAL has a directness that parallels its main character’s generosity and natural curiosity. While the colors and compositions still evoke paintings of the period, Rossellini sets up his scenes with a simplicity and emotional austerity that takes one back to the sense of being in the moment of creation that is similar to his early neorealist films shot on the streets of Rome during the last days of the Occupation, such as OPEN CITY(1945).

In the film’s cumulative power of detailing a man’s downward spiral emotionally and physically while ascending upward spiritually, BLAISE PASCAL is equal in its dramatic vision and visual purity to Bresson’s DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. When Rossellini’s film was screened at MOMA, I was so moved by what I had just seen that afterwards I went to a synagogue for the first time since my teens. The building was locked and dark, and I peered through the windows for some kind of comforting vision, not unlike Pascal in this film, as he bends over his manuscript with pen in hand, initially unable to think of a single word.

Criterion has given us another fantastic transfer of a film that has looked less than ravishing on 16mm and VHS. The colors caress the eye and pop off the screen in a way that evokes three-strip Technicolor – think of Visconti’s SENSO or Fellini’s JULIET OF THE SPIRITS – though I believe BLAISE PASCAL was shot on Eastman stock. (Tag Gallagher, Rossellini’s biographer, probably knows the answer to this, though there is no mention of film stock in his excellent liner notes which go into fascinating detail on the production of these films.) There is slightly more grain than in AGE OF MEDICI, but the focus is as sharp as a tack, essential for a film that bases its effects on the difference between foreground and background in long, fluid takes. The production design emphasizes red and black, the colors taking on a metaphorical heft. The French soundtrack is remarkably clean and free of distortion, with the actor’s lip movements matching the words. (The Italian track is a little more echoey.) Interestingly, the subtitles reflect variations between the French and Italian tracks, with somewhat different dialogue for each one.

In its extraordinary visual design combined with a story of mesmerizing seriousness, BLASIE PASCAL is a film not to be missed, less “educational” (though funded by Italian public television) than visceral in its power and appeal. As someone who has long resisted the verities of faith, I found Rossellini’s film particularly compelling, a fascinating character study as well as a stunning visual experience. It’s a movie that I will look at again, both for its beauty as well as the attempt to illuminate that portion of the human consciousness, which, like the vacuum, impresses itself upon our lives without actually being seen.

(****½)

CARTESIUS

CARTESIUS is the Latin word for Decartes, imparting to a peripatetic personality a somewhat timeless character, at least linguistically. The film CARTESIUS could be seen as the reverse side of BLAISE PASCAL, in both its story and camera style. While Blaise Pascal, because of illness, was confined to the small town of Rouen and his own haunted mind, Rene Decartes traveled from place to place, especially spending time in Holland, far from Paris, and the community of philosophers and poets he considered his base of operations.

An image that is repeated throughout the film is of Decartes riding a horse along the seashore, with the waves splashing around him. Partially this continual travel was to avoid being burnt at the stake (Holland in the 17th Century was Protestant, and therefore outside of the influence of the Catholic church), as Decartes’ investigation of consciousness led him to parallel the process of mathematical proofs Galileo evolved for the operations of the universe. Unfortunately, the Catholic church considered anything linked to Galileo heretical. Back in those days they burned heretics (which Rossellini shows by detailing the burning in effigy by the citizens of Paris of a fellow scholar of Decartes who defended Galileo) reinforcing Decartes’ resolve to decamp immediately for Amsterdam. However, Decartes’ method, partially by design as well as by temperament, was to avoid coming to a conclusion, all the while obsessively exploring the parameters of an idea, in a way almost fleeing the consequences of his own thoughts, and looking for almost any distraction, a new place or a new face, to put off setting down ideas or, for that matter, residence.

I must confess I find Decartes a less compelling personality than either Leon Battista Alberti or Blaise Pascal, creating an emotional absence at the center of Rossellini’s fascinatingly detailed and beautifully made film.. Rossellini admits as much in an interview included in Mr. Gallagher’s liner notes to the disc, stating “(He was) a son of a bitch, a coward, a lazy person. He was quite repulsive, of course, not simpatico. But I don’t care about that. He was intelligent.”

Watching a person who spends most of his time in bed or avoiding intimate human contact during his waking hours is not a particularly cinematic subject. Nonetheless, CARTESIUS may be the most personal and visually stimulating of Rossellini’s history films, taking as its theme the idea and development of consciousness by detailing Decartes’ attempt to scientifically document thought. Rossellini uses the camera to show consciousness in movement, making the space between the actors shimmer with intent, until colors and objects take on the capacity of ideas, through the camera’s constant re-composition and relationship to these things, transforming “objective” reality into an interior space the better to understand Descartes own cerebral entrapment.

Somehow, in Rossellini’s hands, this method, which seems a bit abstract in description, is utterly compelling and fascinating to watch, not only for its beauty, but also because these ideas which we watch Decartes come up with after such avoidance and effort, ultimately becomes a matter of life and death, as dramatic as a Danish Prince avoiding a decision whether to avenge his father’s death, and as visually fascinating as the motes of light on the shoulders of a young woman in a painting by Vemeer.

I also like the subtlety of Rossellini’s approach which places critical aspects of Descarte s life and times on the edges both of his narrative and as well as his frames. For instance, there is a scene where Decartes is walking with one of his philosopher friends in Paris arguing about the validity of Galileo’s discoveries while dead bodies are being thrown into carts, something the people on the street completely ignore, as if this is an everyday occurrence.

Decartes also manages, while fleeing most intimate relationships, to bring a child into the world, by a woman named Hélène (Anne Pouchie) who speaks in homilies and horrible cliches, lending a touch of humor missing from the other films in the set. There is something Buster Keatonesque about Ugo Cardea, the actor playing Decartes, whom Rossellini, quoted in the liner notes, likens to a “thinking reed.” Mr. Cardea’s Descartes looks upon life with an almost resigned expression, teetering between the ridiculous and gently absurd, yet his stoicism and persistence imparts a significance belied by his rabbit-like demeanor.

CARTESIUS is a much easier film to watch than write about. I’ve never experienced 162 minutes go by so quickly. The transfer appears freshly minted, beautifully detailed with gorgeous color, as if the film was made last year. CARTESIUS is a film that, in its use of the camera, is as epic in its capacity for wonder as THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, while maintaining an intimacy and innate suspense about what takes place between human beings that evokes the films of Jean-Pierre Melville.

Never before has procrastination been made so dramatically compelling nor visually arresting, a paradox that ultimately needs to be experienced rather than described. CARTESIUS is a perfect conclusion to a set of Rossellini’s late history films, a film that is simultaneously epic and enigma, a historical road movie and quizzical self-portrait, a low-budget quickie and a sublime meditation, taking its cue from Rembrandt, both visually and emotionally, on history and the passage of time.

(***½)

The 1970’s were a moment of unique freedom and experimentation for filmmakers that gave birth to such works as Altman’s NASHVILLE, Fassbinder’s FOX AND HIS FRIENDS and Polanski’s CHINATOWN. Rossellini’s history films are much less celebrated, and in fact, were fairly invisible during the time they were produced. Yet they are equally worthy of being studied and watched. In a way, Criterion has given us in these history films filled with a boundless sense of vision allied with a thirst for facts and the possibility of their dissemination across generations, the last will and testament of one of Italy’s greatest post-war filmmakers. Rossellini’s act of optimism and faith is a 180 degree difference from Pasolini’s brutal SALO, another film made in response to the increasing homogenization and corporate smothering of Italian culture. For my money, this is the first essential DVD set of 2009. My advice to you is simple: rush out and buy it.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED


I would like to thank Keith Christensen, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for his help in identifying paintings featured in THE AGE OF THE MEDICI.

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