Rossellini’s History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Studio: Criterion Eclipse
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 255/165/129 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Italian/English/French
MSRP: $ 59.95
Release Date: January 13, 2009
Review Date: December 25, 2008
During the last half dozen years of his life, famed Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini abandoned theatrical films to work exclusively on directing theater and making television films and miniseries. The three selections that comprise this no-frills Eclipse package represent prime work of the final phase of his career, projects which were meant to celebrate facts and doctrine rather than following the dictates of well conceived plots with fully developed characters. Many enthusiasts have found these works dry and ponderous, and one certainly must be in the mood for such esoteric approaches to fact-based storytelling. With the proper approach and patience, however, there is something to be said for each one of these historical properties which individually and collectively delve into the development of an amalgamation of artistic and scientific thought in a rapidly expanding social climate we now know as the Renaissance.
The longest and most didactic of the set’s three endeavors is this four-plus hour peer into the fifteenth century artistic renaissance in Florence, Italy, spearheaded by the impossibly wealthy de Medici family whose oldest son Cosimo (Marcello Di Falco) is the target of jealous peers who resent his influential friends and faithful patrons. The television miniseries is divided into three sections: the fall and then return of Cosimo de Medici making up the first two parts and the third a fascinating glimpse into the working life of artist and scholar Leon Battista Alberti (Virginio Gazzolo) whose intense study in dozens of fields saw advances in modern geography, astronomy, physics, architecture, and religion all draw on his beliefs that the liberal arts and scientific theory and mathematics should not be mutually exclusive of each other but rather combined to make each area the richest and most profound it could possibly be.
Yes, there is much pontificating during the show’s 255 minutes (there are entire sermons from the pulpit in the first two sections), but buried beneath all that verbiage are astonishing glimpses in the first uses of perspective in drawing, and the era is marvelously captured in a rich, elaborate production design that makes the fifteenth century come alive as we watch. Rossellini has directed rather lumberingly, moving actors around the detailed sets like so much furniture, but some of those shots resemble paintings straight out of an art history book, and when it‘s over, it‘s easy to understand how so much great sculpture, painting, and architecture were made possible through the efforts of so many insightful artisans.
René Descartes (Ugo Cardea), the seventeenth century academian whose pioneering studies in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and metaphysics formed the basis of modern philosophical thought, is followed through many years of wandering all across Europe studying, observing, debating, analyzing, and ultimately writing about his findings. Spending much of his life trying to reconcile in his own mind the fundamental disputes between theology and science so that intellectual growth could move forward without fear of religious reprisals, Descartes neglects friends and family to pursue his intellectual queries. We see him inevitably arrive at his twenty-one rules for living and at the basis of his “I Think, Therefore I Am” philosophy.
Rossellini’s biographical study of the adult years of René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, takes the same approach to his subject as the director did with the Medici family. The scenes of the French scholar’s life are set as though the people were posing for paintings but talking while the job was in progress. It’s a stylized, studied approach to filming that is made interesting by the ideas being imparted rather than by anything intriguing in the direction or performances. Emotions are vastly subdued (no melodrama here as Descartes reacts to news of the deaths of his father and daughter stoned-faced and emotionless) making the two-part miniseries intellectually stimulating but emotionally sterile.
Frail, intellectual seventeen year old Blaise Pascal (Pierre Arditi) makes a name for himself in 1639 solving the “Lesson in Darkness” mathematical theorem, and from then on, he’s the talk of France with his theories on geometry, the invention of the first practical calculator, the discovery of the existence of vacuum, the invention of a device to measure atmospheric pressure, his discourses on tempering the beliefs of the ancients with modern investigative science, and even coming up with the idea for public transportation, another first. Though suffering most of his life with poor circulation and making many of his discoveries and writing many of his papers from the confines of his bed, the lifelong bachelor was surrounded by many loving friends and relatives when he willed himself dead in 1662.
Rossellini’s treatment of another extreme intellectual is accomplished more along the lines of a traditional biography with more characters interacting with the principal subject, and with much more inventive camera moves and more interesting performances. He also has laced his film with wonderful atmospheric touches as we watch a wealthy man go through his morning ablutions with a small army of servants bathing and dressing him, see a woman on trial for witchcraft slowly come around to believing she is in league with the devil, and watch Pascal have a lengthy debate with another leading intellectual of the time, René Descartes. He has filmed Pascal’s death scene in an excruciatingly long take, perhaps indulging a bit too much in the pomp and ceremony involved in a Catholic final mass. Still, this is unquestionably the most involving of the three films included in this package.
The 1.33:1 television aspect ratio of the period is faithfully rendered in all of the transfers in this set. The encode boasts striking color with exceptional flesh tones and very good sharpness. It’s so sharp, in fact, that outdoor photography where a careless camera operator forgot to clean the camera lens shows up with lots of spots and with hair on the lens (not a fault of the transfer, of course). Quite a few white flecks dot the frame especially in the first third of the miniseries, and there are problems with moiré and aliasing occasionally. Still, the picture quality is very good for a television film of this age. The white subtitles in all of the transfers are generally easy to read. Each of the three chapters of the miniseries has been divided into 15 chapters.
Color is a little more subdued in this transfer than in the previous one, as if Rossellini wanted the image to reflect one of the Dutch paintings of the period (Descartes spent much of his life in Holland). Still, sharpness and flesh tones are both excellent, and the encode is more solid than the previous one despite an occasional dust speck. The first part has 11 chapters while part two has 14 chapters.
The rich and deeply saturated color photography is very striking on this transfer, and apart from a few dirt specks here and there, the presentation is exemplary. Sharpness is top notch, and black levels far surpass those on the other two transfers. The film is divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound is typical of dubbed Italian films of the period. Though the recording attempts to add echo and timbre to the sound mix to give it some ambience, it’s obvious that the entire films have been dubbed with the monotonous sameness of volume levels throughout. There is age-related hiss and some occasional flutter on the tracks, too. Since so much of the running times of these films involve talking, the dubbed tracks are clear but also often unengaging. The Age of Medici has an alternate English language track (I didn’t listen to it), and Blaise Pascal also includes an Italian language dub though I listened to it in the default French language.
The Criterion Eclipse series of releases does not included bonus featurettes, but each of the set’s movies does contain a scholarly essay on the subject in question and the production of the movie by film writer Tag Gallagher.
Rossellini’s History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment will not be for every taste, and even fans of the talented director’s neorealist movies may find many of these films slow-going. For those in the mood for something different in terms of movie biographies, this package may be just what you’re looking for, but be advised that the films within require close attention and a real taste for lofty, esoteric discussions.