Socrates (1971 TV Movie)
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"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."
I'm with Socrates when he complains about the young. I wasn't with him when I was young but now that I'm old, well, I'm with him.
At the same time, Socrates is sort of bad company when you get right down to it. After a lifetime of teaching, and at the age of seventy, he was brought before the judges in Athens accused of all kinds of crimes, from corrupting the youth of Athens and not believing in the gods to wearing white after Labor Day. After an eloquent and non-apologetic Apologia, he was sentenced to death, drank a cup of hemlock, and died content.
Considering that this was never intended to be a Major Motion Picture, it's quite good. Jean Sylvère who plays Socrates LOOKS a lot like the bust of Socrates that many have seen, the bust with the nose broken off, although Sylvère's nose is in fact intact. And the dialog, apparently lifted from Plato, is an excellent illustration of the Socratic method.
I understand some modern professor's use some version of the Socratic method. You don't take a position and argue it. You ask enough of the right KINDS of questions until your adversary finds himself making the argument for you. I'll give just one of the briefest examples. Socrates is about to take the hemlock when his wife, Xanthippe, runs to him, flings her arms around the old man's neck, and cries, "You've been convicted so unjustly!", to which Socrates replies over her shoulder, "Would you rather have me convicted justly?" My impression was always that Xanthippe was something of a nag but she redeems herself here.
The values of the production are spare but adequate to the task. True, there is a lot of talk and nobody's head gets wrenched off, but the talk is so enthralling, so unusual in today's discourse, that I found it eminently followable. I suspect even high school students might get a lot out of it.
All of them sparse, ascetic works that take a transparent look at what informs self and put him on my list of important makers. I turn to his historic work from a later period hoping to find the continuation of that journey.
The first thing to say is that Rossellini's turn from (all else aside) an aesthetic cinema to the encyclopedic mode shows an aging man's desire to educate. The loss is that we have the words, the lecture, but not the visual embodiment (not talking about conventional beauty) that in Viaggio paved the way for Antonioni.
The second is to see what the film isn't; there's no drama to speak of, no passion or anxiety that perturbs, it's a practical unfolding of one man's challenge to his own self to embody his beliefs. To clarify: it's not that there isn't drama around the man, it actually has the most dramatic conflict, the trial. It's that Socrates is not swept in it: and this is the point of the film.
In Anglo hands the film would be much like any of those on Jesus, with much torment and lachrymose redemption. None of that here; Socrates refusal to commute death for exile or escape from prison is not a mute idealism, he grounds why it's not an option as a practical matter: it makes sense. There's a funny scene where he's scolded by his wife for being a no good man-about-town who doesn't bring in any money.
Then to see what it actually is. It's a grounded search for reason, though the important distinction is made from mere intellectualism; not words on paper, dead language that you can't interrogate, but the living reason that is in touch with an 'inner voice' and actively searches for truth. An effort for relative truth, clarity as drawing limits on what we are able to say instead of presuming to say anything.
So not any reason, it's why Socrates rejects the orator who would defend him in court with flattery. It's clear that when he talks of knowledge he means skiing on what's possible to know and not just knowing trivia or nice expression. Rossellini grounds the questioning search in an embodied understanding of god as everything we see, which Socrates' opponents satirize him about as talking about the clouds.
All around him however we see tyranny, ego and ignorance, so how is any of this to take root in daily life?
The powerful admission is that you have to make life out of it, embody. Not just say things then when it's not convenient to follow through do something else, that way life becomes meandering rationalization. 'Make it, don't fake it'. No easy thing, therein lies the adventure.
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.
8.5/10 – Along with "The Rise to Power of Louis XIV", "Socrates" is one of Rossellini's better biographies.
I was wary, however, in the beginning, because the conversations went by so quickly. But now I understand what was going on and, as the story progressed, I became absolutely engrossed in this great, tragic story of one of history's great martyrs of truth.
I was moved, and I am not ashamed to say, literally to tears, during the last somber scene. I must now praise ROSSELLINI's direction. It gave me a more solid understanding of those times.
Also, the serious and unobtrusive musical score, which pulsated on had a drone-like quality which disappointed me at first, but again, as the story progressed, I understood why it was composed in this manner. It gave this work of art, the final touch of perfection.
This needs to be seen by a wider audience. I hope it will, in time, be required viewing in all the halls of education, everywhere.
I shall never forget it.
The language itself is pure modern, with almost no hints of the true nature of Greek speech in 400 BC. And none of the beauty of Socrates speeches.
It was so bad I didn't see it through to the end. So maybe it got a lot better after the first 30 minutes.