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Possibly the most beautiful of Rossellini's "history" films, now available on DVD, and most welcome. The subject matter might seem more likely for Bresson -- the religious and intellectual trials of a 17th century Jansenist -- and indeed this film feels quite Bressonian. With the enormous and unexpected success of "La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV," Rossellini seems to have discovered a way to make historical films that are at once sober and informative yet at the same time intriguing as dramas of internal conflict and growth. "Blaise Pascal" is probably his most austere film (though visually sumptuous), its external conflict consisting of little more than the vain efforts of Pascal's family to keep him from overwork. And yet one becomes deeply involved in Pascal's conflicts. I saw this wonderful picture shortly after it came out (at the MOMA in New York) and it made a profound impression. I am happy to say that my evergreen memory was not in the least tarnished by a re-viewing.
This film looks really good, if rather overstuffed with the supporting cast and multiple historical props. Think The Three Musketeers or The Flashing Blade. The film is also good at evoking the darker side of the period - superstition, illness and premature death. The familial issues aren't terribly gripping unless you are a real Pascal fan. Some illustrations of Pascal's scientific methods are of interest. Of perhaps less interest to most are the theological and philosophical expositions. In fact, it can be hard sustaining one's attention through the entire 2 and a 1/4 hours. General criticism is that the film lacks historical detail about the wider issues while failing to develop real drama about the personal story. I'd go along with this. Overall, looks good, even too good, but you might need to draw on your reserves to maintain concentration.
Blaise Pascal struggles to understand the natural world around him, in
addition to an inner quest for religious faith.
When you say "made for TV", that general gives the impression it will be of a lower quality. At least traditionally; today's television is on par with the cinema. Now, "Blaise Pascal" is different, because this is high-quality and directed by Roberto Rossellini. Wow.
Pascal is an interesting person to make a film about, because he was hugely influential in religion and science... but today seems more or less forgotten. He had a programming language named for him that no one uses anymore. And he is featured in philosophy classes for his "wager", though the logic behind it is flawed. Who today has read his "Pensees"?
Okay we don't want an encyclopedic knowing for its sake, this was a
point in Rossellini's previous film on Socrates. We want to swoop into
things to find limits worth pushing against; the difficulties of truth,
This is Rossellini's own roundabout approach. He sets up historic times in collapse so that we'll draw up a response, see it in effect. They're more than about ideas and history, though these are center stage. They're about men trying to embody ideas, make life out of them, practice reason rather than explain about it.
Here we have a man of powerful reason, a mathematician, who turns to god as the only refuge from meaningless existence. (We think these to be strange bedfellows, reason and faith, they're not for Rossellini. They were no more separate for scientists of the era; it's actually at around this time, the 1600s, that they begin to part ways. It was subsequent generations that posited a clockwork universe without a clockmaker. Suffice to say that science can't say anything about god; what did become obvious was books that could no longer be seen as more than myth and metaphor and a hypocritical hierarchy in charge.)
This is all in a late medieval world where someone can arrive at a remote place and with a document at hand, the King's orders, simply assume authority and (unfairly) tax people, where the witch trial of an obviously disturbed woman is sped up to facilitate business.
These are the limits of world then: one that is both stable enough and deeply irrational, much like our own then, where man can employ reason to make astonishing discovery about nature, and yet find reason incapable to explain beyond itself. Oh Pascal has to fight ignorance and prejudice but this can be waved off as a temporary setback; the real vexing question is what does it all amount to?
The discovery that prompts the inner turmoil is the vacuum, this is contrary to the old Greek notion then hallowed by tradition in the universities that nature (by extension god) abhors one. The implication (not very well conveyed in the experiment) is that something exists which is an absence of something and why would god (by extension nature) do this?
The question is how do we handle void in a larger sense? The inability to know all, spontaneity, transience, the corners that hide from reflection. This is the kind of stuff I'm trying to fathom myself. Now I'm a stranger to Pascal so can't say more about his own view. Having god in the thing may alienate viewers, the soulsearch and doubt will be familiar; we see here the onset of the suffering of modern man.
Rossellini knew what he was doing. By choosing this man for his subject and choosing to show him in this light, he seems to ask: what good is a god that is merely postponed for a next life, that doesn't ease the mind so that this life becomes clear? (compare with Augustine's faith here). Pascal isn't content and one gets the sense that god is no more soothing for him than his own discoveries.
At one point he comes up with an idea for an early system of public transport, effortlessly jots down the plans, it's a success, people congratulate him; unlike his private ruminations, here's a practical response that makes life better for people; and yet he seems neither happy nor particularly interested, it was no more than a pastime for him, insignificant compared to the great questions.
But what good is a life that isn't replenished in doing?
Still there is a notion that if only we could know everything, that would explain life. Rossellini picks this up in his Cartesius, even more subtle than here.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Roberto Rossellini directed a string of biographies in the 1960s and
early 70s, all of which revolved around famous historical figures
(Christ, Pascal, Descartes, Socrates, St Francis, St Augustine, King
Louis XIV, Giuseppe Garbaldi, and one unrealized project about Marx),
and all of which utilized a sparse, stripped down aesthetic which
revoked the pomp and pageantry typically ascribed to such characters.
The earliest of these films, if one ignores "The Flowers of St Francis" and "Viva L'Italia" (aesthetically, they don't quite belong to Rossellini's "new phase"), is "The Rise to Power of Louis XIV", released in 1966 and funded by a French television production company (Rossellini turned to television after a string of box office flops). Starring Jean-Marie Patte as King Louis, the film begins with the death of Cardinal Mazarin, the incident which marked Louis' ascension to the throne of France. What follows is less an attempt to demystify Louis than a lesson in realpolitik. Rossellini draws parallels between kings and film directors, politicians and actors, and dwells on what he sees to be a widening gap between appearance the calculated, outer face of power and politics - and everyday reality. And like Visconti's "political" films, "The Rise to Power of Louis XIV" is implicitly about the birth of the modern nation state, the decline of feudalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie, though unlike Visconti, who was prone to nostalgia, Rossellini adopts a more cosmic tone; he sees transience and inevitable decay in all things.
Rossellini's "Socrates" was released five years later, and focuses on the philosopher's later years. Comprised mostly of dialogue, all terse and to the point, the film is Rossellini's advocation of reason and intellect, traits which themselves land Socrates in hot water, as he is put on trial and sentenced to death for "corrupting youths" and "opposing the state". Released in the midst of both Vietnam and the Cold War (and the nuclear arms race, a new age of unreason), the film is both Rossellini's attempt to put hippies and activists in togas and sandals, and a call to arms; test the Gods with a hammer, question leaders and be warned that any state which craves power will stop at nothing to maintain its grip on such.
In 1972 Rossellini released "Blaise Pascal", his somewhat cold examination of the seventeenth-century scientist and mathematician. The film revolves around a court of judges, one of whom is Pascal's father, who accuse a servant of practising witchcraft. What Rossellini is really presenting, though, is the flip-side to "Socrates". Here we observe men of the state as they behave irrationally in the guise of utmost rationality. This is a cautionary tale about the death of enchantment, and the danger of cold, iron logic, which commits crimes in the guise of truth and denies a certain all-inclusiveness or subjectivity. Mirrrored to this tale is Pascal's own existential crisis, and fear of what he calls "the void of infinity". To deal with this void "we need a multitude of methods", Pascal says, which echoes the sort of "atheistic spirituality" Bergman was likewise dealing with at the time. For both directors, reason without spirit is as icy and destructive as spirit without reason (in interviews, Rossellini would cite "atheism" as itself a prejudice. What he strove for was what he called "knowledge without dogma"). The film ends with a brilliant sequence which strongly recalls Bergman's chamber pieces, Pascal "embracing" God on his deathbed, his room darkening whilst a maid lights a feeble candle.
Sandwiched between "Socrates" and "Pascal" was Rossellini's "Augustine of Hippo". If Rossellini's earlier "biographies" trace the formation of the modern nation state, the rise of the post-faith moment, the dangers of subsuming all things to post-enlightenment rationality, then "Augustine" takes the next step and critiques covetousness and the "logic" of a budding, 21st century capitalism. "Tear the greed out of your heart," Bishop Augustine of Hippone preaches, as he urges his listeners to turn their backs to the "cult of the senses" and the "worship of youth". Alongside this is the film's clash between Augustine's meek band of non-violent monks and the Donatists, a group of violent "heretics" who themselves become the recipients of violence when Rome Falls. At this point Augustine urges his followers to embrace and help their Donatist foes. By the film's end, Rossellini has captured an odd paradox; mankind both torn apart by Christian morals, and dependent on Christian morals for survival.
Rossellini released "Descartes" in 1974 and "The Messiah" one year later, one about seventeenth-century philosopher Rene Descartes the other about Jesus Christ, but both about quiet men of reason who advocate clarity and honesty in a world overrun by dogma. In "Descartes", such dogma spews, ironically, from men of science, all of whom are tainted by personal prejudice and bias. Science is the new faith, the new gospel, the new irrationality, Rossellini states, a problem with Descartes rectifies with his "twenty one rules", which replace Christ's ten commandments with a set of instructions designed to foster a methodical approach to testing which lessens errors, ulterior motives, preconceptions and prejudice.
Meanwhile, in typical Rossellini fashion, Christ is portrayed not as a deity, but a blank slate upon which his followers blindly project their burdens, wants and needs. Rossellini's Christ is a resonant tabula rasa, and it is ultimately others who turn him into the son of God. In this regard, Christ's followers are turned into a parody of irrationality, whilst those naysayers whom films typically show lambasting Christ as a conman and charlatan, are shown to be simply reacting against illogical, scripture twisting "Christians" who are, at worst, a dangerously irrational mob, at best, actual revolutionaries.
8/10 Stiff, but great climax.
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