Almost half of Roberto Rossellini’s film output is unknown, excepting the most ardent cinephile. For fourteen years, Rossellini concentrated on a large-scale pedagogical project that he believed broke with existing cinema. These films covered the wide-range of human development and major figures of history, from Man’s earliest struggles for survival to portraits of Descartes, Pascal and Louis XIV. Before his death in 1977, Rossellini planned to focus on Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson, Diderot and the invention of photography.
Only a small selection of these films have been made available here, with The Criterion Collection releasing a selection, principally Rise to Power of Louis XIV, Blaise Pascal, Age of the Medici and Cartesius.
To admirers of his famed neo-realist corpus and early 1950s features with Ingrid Bergman (Stromboli, Europa 51 and Journey to Italy), Rossellini’s history films seem an aberration. Even the most generous viewers find them difficult going when compared to stereotypical historical epics produced in 1950s Hollywood or to such popular history films of today as the much praised Lincoln.
Rossellini’s history films remind some of those old educational films shown in public schools when the teacher could not be bothered to lecture. They are remembered for their stilted acting, monotone voice-overs of historical information and poor production values. They were endured and forgotten once the classroom lights were switched on.
The question to be asked: What was Rossellini’s purpose in making these films and did he achieve his stated goal of creating works where life and education were placed on an equal footing, and close examinations of historical periods and a person’s confrontations with customs, prejudices and ideas was drama enough.
Watching these films is a strange experience. What seems off-putting to many soon becomes captivating. One becomes engrossed in the smallest of historical details: the morning rituals surrounding the waking of Louis XIV or the medical examination by Mazarin; or the debates around the new science and that of Scripture and ancient philosophy in Cartesius. One soon comes to appreciate the careful exposition of ideas through dialogue and ritual.
Michael Cramer in Rossellini’s History Lessons in New Left Review offers a critical examination of Rossellini’s project and a defence of its utopian vision while acknowledging its problems, specifically with modernity and modernist cinema. This area is fraught with difficulties which Cramer only lightly touches upon and is admittedly outside the bounds of what is essay deals with — that is cinema’s relationship with the whole corpus of modernist aesthetics and cinema’s relationship between image and text, of subjectivity and its expression.
Thinkers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Peter Greenaway have remarked upon how much cinema remains confined to the narrative conventions of the 19th century novel, failing to find a means of expressing a person’s subjective experience of reality and History; of examining of History itself. Cinema fails at grasping its own possibilities of new means of representing subjective experience:
Yet if so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use either to painter or to poet may still await the cinema. That such symbols will be quite unlike the real objects which we see before us seems highly probable. Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently—of such movements and abstractions the films may in time to come be composed. Then indeed when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command. Woolf, The Cinema.
Cinema even as we have it now in 1999 is still an incomplete amalgam of other forms of art which have still not completely reached autonomy. In a real provocative moment I would suggest all we’ve seen is one hundred years of illustrated texts and maybe some recorded theater. 99.9 percent of all cinema, I believe, can be very easily deconstructed back into those three Bazin principles, where he suggested that cinema came from literature, the theater and painting. I would suggest actually that very little of cinema comes from painting, that’s one of my soapbox positions. I believe now certainly that the whole process of cinema that we’ve seen since those first steam engines came into the cinema and people ran out the exits, and since those the waves first came in and people lifted their legs in case they were going to get wet, has been exacerbated primarily by Griffith’s association with nineteenth-century literature, which was the first real experiment in American cinema, and which began the way in which we have seen images which are constantly slaved to texts. I challenge you to acknowledge the notion that when you watch ninety-nine percent of cinema you can see the cinema maker following the text. Peter Greenaway, Have We Seen Any Cinema Yet?
Perhaps the reason why Rossellini’s project is so challenging for many is not simply the pedagogical assumptions, but the visual vocabulary he employed, where the human eye is now augmented by the camera, “with a gaze that allows it, for the first time in the history of the world, to surpass its own finitude, to meet up with reality in all its aspects.”