The Invisible Author

Death and self-negation in the historical films of Roberto Rossellini
by Bilge Ebiri  posted January 21, 2009
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The early '60s weren’t a good time for Roberto Rossellini. His expensive historical melodrama Vanina Vanini (1961) was deemed a fiasco, and the legendary filmmaker himself tried to block its distribution; its follow-up, Anima Nera (1962), was almost completely ignored. Dream projects on Pulcinella and Caligula were abandoned. Along the way, he practically went broke, picked a fight with the cinéma vérité movement, and, in a news conference at a Rome bookstore in 1962, announced his retirement from films. “The cinema is dead,” he declared. (To which Alfred Hitchcock notably replied, "Rossellini is dead.")

Within four years, however, the aging lion would find himself in the midst of a career resurgence, albeit one made possible by television. La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966, commonly translated as The Rise to Power of Louis XIV, though now re-titled The Taking of Power by Louis XIV for Criterion's new DVD release) inaugurated a series of historical films conceived and directed by Rossellini for the express purpose of presenting the global TV audience with historical and scientific facts, supposedly shorn of any embellishment or dramatization. In truth, these efforts had begun earlier, with an elaborate journey through man's relationship with technology, The Iron Age (1964), initiated by Rossellini and directed by his son Renzo—but Roberto’s triumphant return to the director’s chair with Louis XIV was the point at which the film world began to take notice.

The next decade or so would be a period of remarkable achievement, but Rossellini had no patience for those who sought to put an auteurist spin on his films. As he continued to toil on these historical projects for the next decade, the director would insist that the films represented pure knowledge and stridently deny that they contained any authorial flair whatsoever. (Never mind the fact that his stated refusal to shape these narratives itself represented an act of artistic assertion.) But watch them today—and, thanks to Criterion's Louis XIV and Eclipse's box set of Blaise Pascal (1972), The Age of the Medici (1973), and Cartesius (1974), one can finally do so—and it’s hard not to sense Rossellini’s presence in these films.

Ever since he burst onto the scene with Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), Rossellini had experienced an uneasy relationship with his public. Many of his films that are now considered masterpieces—Stromboli (1950), Flowers of St. Francis (1950), and Voyage to Italy (1954), for example—were initially dismissed by audiences. Still, he had maintained his brand name as one of the lions of international cinema, in part because of the support of the young auteurist French critics who would go on to establish the New Wave.

But no amount of retroactive goodwill was enough to save Rossellini from his early-'60s doldrums. The filmmaker’s despair at his own career was mirrored by his despair at the culture around him, which he found to be deeply ignorant and superficial. The historical films (often referred to as the "didactic films") were in part a response to a perceived vulgarization of both history and reality in the cinema. The schlocky sword-and-sandal peplum genre had hit its highpoint in the early ’60s, with Italy leading the way with films such as Hercules Unchained (1959) and The Triumph of Maciste (1961). Furthermore, Cinecittà was often ground zero for such historical pageants as Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963). On the opposite end of the spectrum, the vérité movement and the French New Wave saw realism as something immediate, messy, and often fragmentary. Rossellini’s historical films—heavily researched, measured, somber, and seemingly unadorned, sometimes to a fault—feel like a direct response to these trends, supposedly eschewing style and perspective for "truth." It’s an authorial act of self-negation. As Rossellini told Cineaste in 1976: “The image is the offer of data in its pure essence, with no sophistications and no dialectic terms around it. My movies are data. I do not show what I think, only data.”

Of course, just because Rossellini said it does not make it so. A close viewing of the historical films reveals not so much a steady stream of raw data as a very specific take on individuals about whom we know relatively little, filtered through Rossellini's unique sensibility. True, much of the dialogue comes from published accounts, but the overwhelming sense of melancholia and decay in these figures is far from accepted truth. Whether it’s Louis XIV, the future "Sun King," at the moment he achieves full mastery over his court, or the tormented Blaise Pascal, as he struggles to reconcile science with faith, Rossellini's characters in these films are on a strange quest for self-negation. The director had always been drawn to martyrs in his films, but these men are of a wholly different magnitude—they’re not resistance figures who are put down by authorities, but figures who willfully sublimate their personalities and often themselves in search of something greater. (Sound familiar?)

In recreating history, Rossellini’s camera drifts and focuses like an eye gazing across the surface of a moving painting—finding details, faces, patterns, but never quite transcending or reshaping space. (One could contrast the style of these historical films with Visconti's reframing tracking shots in The Leopard, for example.) Indeed, one suspects that Rossellini is interested not so much in space, but in time. His slow, elegant zooms feel as if they are crossing centuries, not meters. The effect here resembles the odd alternation between ossified distance and close-up achieved by Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon (1975). It’s not a coincidence that both filmmakers utilized the zoom in revolutionary ways.

Composed entirely of setpieces (albeit shot on a dime), Louis XIV is full of bravura scenes. But its most revealing moment comes during its haunting finale, when the young king, having finally consolidated his power over the nobles by compelling them to dress as elaborately as he does and forcing them to watch him eat impossibly extravagant meals, retreats to his chambers and asks to be left alone. There, this sad little man (as played by Jean-Marie Patte, Louis hardly ever cracks a smile) slowly sheds his fancy clothes, then sits down and reads a passage from François de La Rochefoucauld: "Neither death nor the sun can be gazed at fixedly." These are the final lines in the film. At the moment of his triumph, the Sun King has achieved a kind of death. As the film scholar Peter Bondanella observes, "Louis has seized power by transforming life into a spectacle, but in the process he has assumed a role essentially devoid of intellectual or moral substance."

Of course, Louis’s death here is metaphorical, even allusive. In the films that followed, The Acts of the Apostles (1969), Socrates (1971), and Blaise Pascal, death would become a looming, very real presence. Rossellini's Pascal, for example, is a man of severe faith who, for all his blinding knowledge, constantly acknowledges his insignificance. Speaking to his stern father early on, the young Pascal intones, "Father, I know a man is truly great when he knows he is nothing." His world is one of shadowy torment and pain—from his sister’s deeply superstitious embrace of the Jansenist strain of Catholicism to his own slow, passive withering away in the last years of his life. Tag Gallagher perhaps put it best in his book The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini:

Blaise Pascal is so much a horror movie that it makes Louis XIV look like a romp.…Everything is drenched in suffering, torture, fear, superstitious dread; everyone is writhing in desperate faith, self-mortification, and pain.…Rossellini’s penchant for masses of black, white, and scarlet make everything seem drenched in blood and penance.

Pascal does not rage against his suffering; indeed, he almost welcomes it. In a scene near the end, three doctors attend to the ill thinker. The two traditional ones smell him; the third, a younger doctor using newer methods, actually bothers to check his pulse. They all declare him to be okay and his illness to be non-threatening. It’s a funny scene (a rare moment of levity in this particular film) but it could be read another way as well: maybe the only thing wrong with Pascal is that he actually seeks oblivion.

The only film where this sort of self-martyrdom doesn’t quite take place is The Age of the Medici, if only because the nominal protagonists, the banker and patron Cosimo de' Medici and the humanist Leon Battista Alberti, lived long enough to die as old men. But even here, Rossellini shifts the emphasis from what we thought we knew about the Renaissance, and in so doing he shows his hand: in his world, as Gallagher argues, Renaissance art is "an instrument of research rather than self-expression." Here, factories, machines, mathematical calculations, and paintings exist in the same sphere, expressions of the same basic human impulse to create a more utilitarian and just society.

Rossellini may have argued that he was merely giving us unvarnished truth, but in reality, he was giving us himself, in a variety of guises. Behind these portraits of self-negating figures lies that of the disillusioned artist who withdrew from his chosen medium to toil away at a body of work that purported to do away with authorial sensibility in the service of something greater. (Is it any wonder that his final feature would be 1976's The Messiah?) Pride is the great bogeyman in all these films. Again, Pascal's words resonate: "God doesn’t condemn those who seek to understand Nature’s marvels in order to share them with mankind. The only danger is to fall prey to the demon of vanity, who urges us to believe that the marvels are our own, and those who discover them their creators."

Rossellini himself echoed this sentiment, though in considerably more inflamed language, in a revealing 1974 interview with Gallagher and John W. Hughes. In it the director responded thusly to the observation that some of his shots in Louis XIV seemed to be influenced by classical paintings:

I would be…a dirty cockroach if I did a thing like that. I refuse it completely. I’m looking at reality, that’s all. The reality is there. Were I to refer to a painting you would immediately get the idea that now I’m showing you how capable I am, how intelligent I am, how learned, how refined. I hate all those things.

Of course, Rossellini had always championed the supremacy of open-ended realism in the service of cinematic truth, but one could contrast the above stridency with these far more temperate words from a 1952 interview:

A director has [his crew] at his disposal like the books in a library. It’s up to him to judge what’s of use and what’s not. The very act of choosing is a part of expressing himself. When a director knows his collaborators thoroughly, and knows what he can get out of them, it’s as if he expresses himself through them.

While an insistently ascetic tone dominates the director’s public pronouncements regarding the historical films, we should not take this too literally. They are the words of an artist responding to the shifting aesthetics and attitudes of the world around him. As filmmaking styles changed dramatically and chaos reigned on campuses and city streets, the director’s hermetically sealed historical recreations must have seemed increasingly like transmissions from another planet. With these films, Rossellini simultaneously thumbed his nose at the world and expressed an almost superhuman love for it.


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Courtesy Criterion Collection
Jean-Marie Patte and Raymond Jourdan in The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, directed by Roberto Rossellini
Photo Gallery: The Invisible Author


Bilge Ebiri writes about film for New York magazine and Bookforum. He is also the director of the feature film New Guy (2003).

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