In 1974, while visiting a friend in Los Gatos, California with scarcely a dime in my pocket, I learned that Pacific Film Archives was showing Rossellini’s Age of the Medici (1972) over three nights in Berkeley. I walked to the interstate and hitched a ride. My driver was a Chicano in a beat-up car. He showed me an iron rod he kept under the seat for unruly passengers and negotiated the jammed highway by going 70 in the service lane. As he dropped me off, he mentioned he was checking into a psychiatric hospital.
The first segment of The Age of the Medici ended at midnight. My bed was 50 miles away with no way to get to it. I tried sleeping across the street in a University of California dormitory lounge, but a guard threw me out. I found a bush, and it started to rain.
All the next day it poured. I sat in a small museum, saw the second part of The Medici that night, got drenched afterward, and for two dollars found space with some other strays on the floor of an apartment, where flood lights and rock music blared through what was left of the night until we were kicked out at seven. The rain had stopped. I waited 14 hours and saw the third part of The Medici.
I cannot imagine a better context for a Rossellini movie: confusion, chaos, out-on-a-limb, obsessed. And the movie: order, but something more: providence, amazing grace. Never have house lights coming on jarred me so precipitously out of one world and into the next.
In that next world, many people are bored by The Medici and despise Rossellini TV movies. Everything is wrong: costumes, setting, personalities, themes. Nothing is clarified: neither banking, perspective, cloth, the shock of Masaccio, nor who anyone is. Viewers who do not already know all about the Renaissance feel stupid; the learnèd feel condescending. Rossellini himself went around saying it is wrong to enjoy these movies (or any movies), that the sole justifiable pleasure lies in the sensation of being exposed to facts. And people took him seriously! Even his fans. For Jacques Siclier in Le Monde it was a defense of Acts of the Apostles to call it “anti-dramatic, anti-romanesque…only the objective description of a phenomenon.” (1)
What phenomenon? What “facts”? There is not a single date in all this self-proclaimed “didactic” cinema. Not only (to cite only one example) will two paragraphs in a desk encyclopedia give you a clearer outline of Pascal’s life, thought and importance, in far less time, than will Rossellini’s Blaise Pascal (1971), but almost none of the paragraphs’ “facts” will be found in the film! Pascal prattles texts on geometry and epistemology, but at a pace impossible to follow, like all Rossellini’s didactic heroes, without telling us what the texts mean.
Texts are important more for their presence than for their discourse. The same is true for the weird crucifix (with Christ’s arms stretched upward) that Rossellini shows in Pascal’s room, without telling us that it is a “Jansenist” crucifix. And it is true for the constant allusions Rossellini keeps making to quarrels between Jesuits and Jansenists, without telling us what Jansenism was.
Explanations are “castrating,” Rossellini argued, because they do our thinking for us. The “facts” he offers instead are more concrete. Thus Blaise Pascal is a horror movie, like Dreyer’s Dies irae (Day of Wrath) (1943). Everything is drenched in suffering, torture, fear, superstition, blood and penance, masses of black, white and scarlet; everyone is writhing in desperate faith, self-mortification and pain. Such was Jansenism from a Roman point of view: absurdity systematised into terror. As in Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (1950), we feel the intolerability of time, the appalling heroism demanded daily. That small advances occur seems a miracle.
If we relate to everything in a Rossellini shot, if we make active effort rather than waiting to be entertained – if we reach out and feel the crucifix and feel Pascal – then we shall have no problem whatsoever with the movie Rossellini has chosen to make, and we shall achieve a kind of knowledge of “Jansenism” that no book can give, a direct experience. We shall experience Pascal’s sister who, perpetually frightened, flees into a monastery, and dies there; Rita Forzano’s performance, even just the way she stands in the background, lets us feel Jansenism from the inside, and proves the power of Rossellini’s methods. Similarly Pascal’s texts are less important than he is himself. To say, as many have, that these movies lack acting, psychoanalysis, Murnau-like expressionism, overwhelming emotions and the richest possible cinematic art is liking closing one’s eyes at high noon and claiming the sun no longer exists.
Yes, you say, a direct experience, but only of an opinionated re-enactment. Is Rossellini even accurate?
I was startled by derisory laughter while watching one of my favourite scenes – Phillip’s baptism of the eunuch in Acts of the Apostles (1969). I was told that the actor is wearing pillows to make him look fat. This had not occurred to me the first 25 times, and I do not comprehend why it merits distraction, or why the storybook images Rossellini’s travelers see on the road of Jerusalem (or Florence) require me to feel disdain because they are storybook images – paintings inserted into the shot (the famous Schüfftan process, one reason Rossellini could have made thirty features for what RAI spent just on Zeffirelli’s Gesu’ di Nazareth ). Must we have the real Jerusalem and the real fat eunuch? Shall we also deride the falsity of scenery in Giotto’s frescoes?
It is easy for an historian to write, “Cosimo de’ Medici greeted the Venetian ambassador.” This is accurate. It is something else to provide the clothing, the room, the furnishings, the ambience, the voices, the lighting, not to mention the words, vocal tones, comportment, emotions and actual bodies of Cosimo and the ambassador. All this must be inaccurate, a portrait not of Cosimo, but of an actor. What were people like then? What was Florence like? We can only imagine, like Walt Disney, Rossellini, or Giotto.
Rossellini imagines a city in the style of its painters, like Renoir in French Cancan (1955). His Cosimo is slinky sexy like a quattrocento vampire, and although The Medici’s mood is elation, whereas the mood of La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966) is paranoia, in both films it is fear that prompts their prises de pouvoir and transforms purportive protagonists into monstrous antagonists. Louis will turn himself into the sun so that he can hide where no one will see him. And in Cartesius (1974) a terrified Descartes will excavate for salvation deep inside syllogisms. This is history to be relived, in the style of Stendhal and Dumas. History from a point of view, as Rossellini’s camera constantly reminds us, by darting in and out and all around with a curiosity often wholly independent of the thrust of the dialogue. These are adventure movies.
And it is always the moment when one cycle of history is dying, another is born. Rossellini concentrates on the loonies, the crazy people who turn the most damn fool ideas into reality, like Garibaldi in the wonderful Viva l’Italia (1961), Columbus in a marvelous episode in the dreadful Man’s Struggle for Survival (1970), Paul, Louis or Descartes, who act less from reason than from fire within, and take us all with them. Reality is what we create. So let’s make a new reality. “From a very humble position, you can change the whole concept of the universe,” Rossellini insisted.
He explains the spread of Christianity as simply one person speaking to another person and being believed. Just one-on-one, always. And on foot. People walk constantly. In contrast, in Socrate (1970), Athens Year Zero is when “eloquence” rose from the ruins of Periclean civilisation to triumph over reason, truth and justice. And the process continues.
“Film gets more immoral every day, because every day it gets more allusive.” (2) His effort was to be authentic rather than impressive, precise rather than allusive, as open as life itself to viewers’ diverse interpretations: to show Pascal, for example, before the two paragraphs delete the man and his realities. Socrates complains that a text, unlike a talking person, is authoritarian, eliminating dialogue. Rossellini wanted a cinema that could be argued with.
People who reach into the pictures, feel, and get involved (emotionally and physically) invariably love these movies. “The camera works like an eye, so you can develop a system of constant direct participation.…And film has the advantage that, if you know how to look at things, you can put so much into one picture that the result is quite complex, whereas writing is analytical, consisting of putting one idea down after another and organising them.” (3)
Acts of the Apostles is perhaps the aesthetic culmination of Rossellini’s researches (particularly in its second hour). Some call it a new film language (which of course first looks impoverished). Not coincidentally the theme of Rossellini’s Acts is opposition to authority. Its fluid pictorial style, with its continuous reframing as Rossellini looks in (using a remote-controlled zoom he invented for this purpose), assures us of the reality of his gaze and the distance of the past, encourages us to look in, animate the characters, and bring them to life.
Which why it’s such a shock, when the lights come on in Berkeley.
* * *
In 1963 Roberto Rossellini called a press conference and announced: “Il cinema è morto.” “Cinema is dead.”
Alfred Hitchcock retorted: “Rossellini is dead.” Hitchcock was still begrudging Ingrid but he was not far wrong.
Rossellini had lost confidence. For four years he refused to direct. He was through with art. Civilisation was collapsing from infantilism; film’s urgent task was to show the masses the map of human achievement. He marketed himself as a purveyor of educational materials. Cynics laughed as Rossellini begged funds from a steel company, Italsider, so that his son Renzo could direct the 4.5-hour The Iron Age (1964), and then convinced Jean Riboud and John de Menil to come up with $500,000 from Schlumberger, IBM, Gulf, and UpJohn so that Renzo could direct the 12-hour Italian-French-Egyptian-Roumanian Man’s Struggle for Survival celebrating the conquest of nature.
French TV came to the rescue, with a nudge from Jean Gruault: La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV, which was reportedly seen by 20 million French people the first week of colour broadcasting. Italy’s Christian-Democrats, not to be outdone by Guallists, replied with Acts of the Apostles. “Horizon 2000”, the new production company Riboud and de Menil had given Rossellini, was off and running.
Most of Rossellini’s movies are dedicated to history. There are 36 hours of TV dramatising the past, plus 19 features on Francesco, Garibaldi, the carbonari, Christ, and World War II. His Great Plan was to film the whole history of everything, but to have others do the directing. Fellini was immoral, he maintained, because Fellini preferred to go on making Fellini movies rather than direct one of Rossellini’s didactic subjects.
* * *
Pierre Arditi (Pascal in Blaise Pascal): “[Rossellini] told me, ‘I can make a chair act.’ And I am a chair in the film, a good chair, but a chair all the same. I never had any power over what I was doing. He controlled me like a guinea pig to whom one says go right, go left: I went right, left, I put my hand like this. At the moment of the memoir, the discovery of God, my hand had to go down like this, and then my head fall like this, and then I had to fall down because I finally had the revelation of God. It’s the most successful scene in the film, but I had no voice in it. He based all his work on a style of gesture that was so precise that it ended up giving you the inner feelings.” (4)
Jean Dominique de La Rochefoucauld (scenarist): “Roberto Rossellini was not a director like others. He created a work (his films) baroque in its treatment of space, avid for truth in the instant, the truth of the emotion felt by him in regard to his characters, through an understanding of their interior that could resemble an identification. His scenarios…are not invented stories but re-creations of characters with whom he could feel a commonality of desires, sorrows, joys, etc.” (5)
Roberto Rossellini: “There are people who turn around and see the wall behind them, others see 20 centuries.” (6)
- Jacques Siclier, Le Monde, November 6, 1970.
- Cited in France-Observateur, April 10, 1958.
- Cited in Nuestro Cine no. 95, 1970.
- Cited in Alain Bergala & Jean Narboni, Roberto Rossellini, Éditions de l’Étoile, Paris, 1990, p. 45.
- Cited in Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, DaCapo Press, New York, 1998.
- Cited in Mario Garriba, “Cinema anno zero”, Filmcritica 374, May 1987.