Cartesius (1974 TV Movie)
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The production has some weaknesses as well as some strengths. The music, as another reviewer has mentioned, is odd and over-used. The acting is adequate but never more than that. There is a tableau quality to scenes throughout the film the people are stiff and come across as conduits of the dialogue rather than actually speaking. There are some real pluses too. During the entirety of one scene in which Descartes is describing his philosophy to a printer, two men work a printing press one placing the blank pages on the type set that he has daubed with ink, and the other turning the screw a half turn, then back. There are several other scenes that show craftspeople engaged in their work. Finally, I found it refreshing that everyone, French, Dutch, and English, spoke Italian - leaving me to figure out nationality by clothing styles and names.
If Cartesius turns out to be your cup of tea, you may like Potop (The Deluge), directed by Jerzy Hoffman, set in Poland around the time of Descartes (and Gustav Adolph). While a very different approach to filmed history, it is a colourful and interesting story.
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.
7.9/10 Though intermittently powerful, "Descartes" is overlong and too didactic. It's arguably the weakest of Rossellini's biographies. Worth one viewing.
The most interesting way to experience the man would be in the course of making his observations: it would have to be visual, internal, in space. Not very educational; a different thing altogether than Rossellini tried with any of these things. Instead we have only the expositions of thought in long monologues, the sober history.
It's all there in a roundabout way. In a nutshell what Descartes was doing was this: the senses are unreliable and I have reason to doubt them, the world tentative, the only thing that is concretely known to me is that 'I think'. This was his anchor from which to reconstruct all the other stuff.
Now the observations are central in the sense that we needed someone to come up with the first intuitions so we could have a picture of what to correct and overcome. Indispensable in his time when mind was all sorts of muddled ideas bundled together, with hindsight we can see that in his quest for absolute clarity he severed a lot of vital nuance that we've been putting back in.
So, tedious and dry if you stick to the thought, educative. But if you see past his 'I' that thinks and thinks and into the pooled space of life in which it appears?
Rossellini's Socrates offered warm interrogation. Descartes does haughty exposition. Socrates was also concerned with drawing limits to reason but it was to free thought. Descartes wants to make it concrete. One man therapeutic, the other arrogant and dogmatic in his way. This is why Rossellini includes his erroneous views on the boiling heart and fluid heavens around an immovable earth, we're meant to see a sometimes presumptuous man who is prone to error as much as anyone.
One reviewer seems to think that Rossellini undertook the project to celebrate reason over prejudice, not quite of course. That's only one side of it. Rossellini contemplates both sides; and does it with the hand of a cinematic master.
Another reviewer deems this worthy for classroom use; I agree, it's a solid exposition and likely the only one on the subject that we're going to have for a long time. But I'd also draw attention to this mechanical view of life that results from it; people are like trees in a forest Descartes muses, inanimate nature, his newborn baby is a perfect machine of nature, in the end when he grieves he wants to 'extinguish the senses' and withdraw to reflect.
(Exercise: put the man to the test, try to not think. It's okay to learn stuff, but how about we actually see our own mind for a change? Sit somewhere quiet, eyes closed, relax the body, focus on the breath thinking nothing. When the mind strays in thought gently bring it back. This is the preliminary for Buddhist meditation, so you can snoop around the web for better instructions, the concept is the same. Descartes was not trying to model some other 'I', it was this one in his own mind. What happens? Where is I?)