Increasingly disillusioned with modern art, Roberto Rossellini dedicated the later years of his life to revisiting humanity’s past. “There are people who turn around and see the wall behind them, others see 20 centuries,” he once said. Similarly, there are people who look at the filmmaker’s final works and see radical new ways to envision history, while others see endless hours of pedantic homework. Though reductive of Rossellini’s goals and strategies, the latter take is understandable: Analytical rather than emotional, free of action and packed with theoretical pondering, the films can seem dry and academic to those who remember only the heat and violence of Open City. Rossellini insisted that his whole purpose in these made-for-TV projects was to educate viewers, yet his portraits of such figures as Louis XIV, Socrates, and Jesus are works less of a headmaster than of an experimental time-traveler, endlessly inquisitive about how the camera can illuminate present travails by reliving past achievement, animating textbooks for meditative discourse. Becalmed but often exhilarating, these films show Rossellini rethinking the medium at an age when many directors think of retirement, and the three collected in Eclipse’s box set are easily the most vital of these experiments.
Rossellini recreates Florence during the Renaissance as a veritable marketplace of arts and ideas, yet the three-part The Age of the Medici begins in the dark: War rages and villages are pillaged, conspiratorial intrigue is whispered about as the head of the Medici family dies. Cosimo de Medici (Marcello di Falco) is banished by his political enemies but, “great chess player” that he is, returns to end the conflicts and solidify the church under his rule. The control tactics used by Cosimo are even more brutal than those of Louis XIV, yet where The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is suffocating, The Age of the Medici is comparatively airy and open-ended. “Plunder becomes an ethic, avarice a philosophy” when Medici takes over, yet it is this craven economic system that assures Florence’s artistic prosperity: If it is the age of capitalism, it is the age of Donatello and Masaccio as well. All of Rossellini’s sagas of historical seekers are self-portraits of one kind or another, and Cosimo’s toughness is really the resolve of a filmmaker, perpetually struggling to find harmony between art and commerce. (The balance finally achieved in Florence makes the 15th-century city look both like a benign dictatorship and the kind of dream movie studio the director could never hope to find in real life.)
In stark contrast, Blaise Pascal plays like a waking nightmare. The setting is 17th-century France, but it might as well be the Dark Ages. Superstition and fear rule the day, a trial is rushed along so that taxes can be granted on time, a woman accused of witchcraft is brought to court, wrecked by torture and ready to give her soul up. “Such things bewilder me,” sighs the titular mathematician-philosopher (Pierre Arditi). The tension here is not between art and commerce but between science and religion, a conflict that haunts Pascal but nevertheless gives him an anchor in a world of suffering. His devout sister Jacqueline (Rita Forzano) follows her faith and emotions and dies in a Jansenist convent while Pascal clings to “clear knowledge” through protracted illness, and Rossellini endows both sides of the era’s metaphysical split with equal dignity. In the darkest of Rossellini’s mature works, the lucid reasoning that drives the protagonist also becomes a tool of terror in the hands of authorities, leading Pascal to burrow even deeper into his own search for meaning. It’s a mysteriously purified and disturbing film, uncannily fleshing out the man who wrote that “between us and heaven or hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world.”
Rossellini’s last TV production before briefly returning to the screen, Cartesius is of the three films the one that comes closest to the historical-biopic conventions the director’s de-dramatized approach rigorously eschews. Much of it is due to its tighter pacing and to the way René Descartes (Ugo Cardea) is humanized by his love for a lippy maid whose earthy homilies function as a contrast to the French philosopher’s abstract arguments. Still, in what other biopic would the protagonist disinterestedly turn down the chance to go on a sea journey only to fervently dedicate himself to a mathematical riddle, or throw off his most celebrated dictum (“I think, therefore I am”) almost as an afterthought? These films are adventures of the intellect: As with Cosimo de Medici and Blaise Pascal, there’s heroism in Descartes’s pursuit of logic and unmistakable bliss in knowledge. Whether amid the frenzies of neorealism or the cooled contemplation of television, history to Rossellini was not a matter of dusty encyclopedias, but of discoveries shared with audiences.
A substantial improvement on the faded VHS tapes, the full-screen transfers are rich in saturated hues and attentive to Rossellini's meticulous framing. A bit of hiss is detectable in the English dubbed track of The Age of the Medici, but otherwise the clear if unexceptional sound is acceptable.
The liner notes are culled from Tag Gallagher's The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, so no complaints there.
Rossellini's great history lessons blow the dust off textbooks.