Thursday 19 October 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (19), Italy Part 3 Roberto Rossellini: INDIA and "the new historical neo-realism" - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues.


Roberto Rossellini

In December 1956 Rossellini went to India where he spent nearly a year travelling around while shooting 48,000 feet of film from which he made a multi-part series for French and Italian television with his commentary in the form of an interview with French and Italian interviewers respectively. He then made a feature film in French and Italian versions from the footage, himself defining the difference between the TV series and India as that between documentary and a work of poetry, the feature an elaboration and fictionalisation in four episodes each introduced by an external narrator who then becomes the main character in the fiction.                                                                                                     

(1958) marks the beginnings of another reorientation in his search for reality - to show rather than explain, “to set the conditions in which true relations might appear suddenly without warning. India more than any other film by Rossellini, comes over as a renewed effort at research, a return to sources … showing a fusion of the old and the new, of Man and Nature…in a quest for fresh inspiration (or recaptured youth?) both away from European life and outside the dramatic conventions of his mortal enemy, the story film” (Guarner 74).

Rossellinian Realism

Sam Rohdie identifies India as being composed of a collage of heterogeneous elements “that do not cohere” This confirms a Rossellinian ‘realism’ in which the relation between documentary reality and fiction, rather than being complementary, as it was in the neo-realist films, appeared irreconcilable. In the Bergman films, Rohdie points out, reality is centred outside the couple [in Journey to Italy, for example, the ‘foreign’ world they are encountering]. This, he contends, is “a new consciousness in cinema.” Rather than becoming conventionally integrated this creates a crisis, as in Journey to Italy, shattering the conventions of what Rohdie calls ‘a scenic realism’ and “indeed in films more generally of the classical tradition “to which the films of neo-realism essentially belonged (see Forgacs ed. 119).

In India each of the episodes is marked by a separation. Heterogeneity and irreconcilability are also the theme and drama of the film, as if its form is what primarily is being staged, replacing conventional scenic realism by setting up a plurality of realities different from each other giving them greater force and clarity. This constitutes what Rohdie refers to as a “Rossellinian lesson”: to make us aware of reality one has to uncover the illusions of scenic reality; it is primarily homogeniety that masks it. 


“What [Rossellini] recognised and what neo-realism evaded, was the problematic relation between reality and the presentation of it. It is when reality seems strange that it is most true and you can begin to see it” (ibid). 

To ‘show’ - the aim of his cinema - was, for him, not to explain. To ‘show’ was not to create false relations (illusions). To ‘show’ was to set the conditions in which true relations might appear (suddenly without warning). To ‘show’ was to make films in the name of reality which did not reach conclusions, which did not align, which did not signify, which was seemingly, impossibly, reality before meaning and ‘before’ interpretation and thus before the verbal; in short, a cinema that did not ‘demonstrate’. Reality could only be found in cinema, in the medium of the photographic duplication which would ‘show’. Rossellini’s reality was divorced from the explication of a verbal or written text (the script), from prior meanings, from imposed narratives, and made instead a tool for investigating and revealing the real as the not-yet-signified, therefore of reality as still open, still true, as yet free from illusions, including ideology. The effort to keep reality and its images open in face of traditions to close it down was considerable     - Sam Rohdie,  David Forgacs et al eds. 121

One could say with some confidence from the evidence, both on the screen and anecdotal, that Rossellini came closest to fully ‘keeping reality and its images open’ in PaisáVoyage to Italy and India.

In practical terms, as Rohdie elsewhere noted, Rossellini did not rely on multiple takes in search of the right one “but preferred an immediacy that would preserve the moment and glow of an action.” This momentariness was “for him thereby real and true” thus important because it did not result in a ‘finish’ in the usual sense. “It was what he found while filming […] rather than what he wished to demonstrate, that mattered: inspiration not planning, what arrived by chance rather than what was predetermined,”  (“Film Modernism’ 184). 

See Adrian Martin’s reference to the sense of the "present tense in Rossellini’s best films” in the blog extract referred to in the attached bibliography. Rossellini also spoke to what he sought as the “presentness” in his films such as Francesco noted below.

*See Adrian Martin below

Return to cinema

Rossellini’s time in India was followed ironically by his ‘return to cinema’, perplexed by the commercial failure of his films since Open City and “the lack of understanding encountered of his artistic ambitions.” It was not the commercial and critical success of Il Generale Della Rovere (1959) that was important to Rossellini. He saw it as an obligatory regressive resort by him to the classically melodramatic contrivances of Rome Open City. What was important to him was the opportunity provided by the Italian government to make a film for the centenary of the Risorgimento in Italy:  Giuseppe Garibaldi’s capture of Sicily and Naples from the Bourbons as a prelude to Italy’s unification. Rossellini spoke of his pride in the film and his admiration for Garibaldi beginning with a childhood identification. In Viva Italia (1960), by humanising him as “less than utterly heroic,” the demystification of Garibaldi attracted some criticism although the film was successful with the public.  

Viva Italia

Previously employed in Era notte a Roma/ It Was Night in Rome (1960), the Pancinor zoom lens developed by Rossellini, for the first time becomes important in allowing for the direct presentation of the action in which (hopefully) ”time is abolished so that a distant past can be examined ‘in the present'...the extreme economy has an eternal quality.” Robin Wood saw the zoom as reinforcing Rossellini’s intention ‘to show rather than explain’  (‘Critical Dictionary’ 898). 

What Guarner finds “immediately striking in Viva l’Italia” is the further fulfilment of Rossellini’s expressed aspiration towards history ‘lived as the present’ that he felt in1950 was first realised in Francesco giullare di Dio which he regarded as “the first true historical film” (93).  On balance, however, “de-dramatisation of historical scenes and insistence on a “plain” Garibaldi” (Brunette 226) are combined with intense scenes with firing squads, hand to hand combat in battle and powerful deployment of the spectacle of clashing armies in long shot. Dramatic emotions and uncharacteristic (for Rossellini) quick cutting is often, if not always, played to popular taste. “The film luxuriates in spectacle instead of thematising and problematising it” as is done in Louis XIV six years later (ibid).

Utopian television

In what his biographer Tag Gallagher terms ‘the new historical neo-realism’, La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966) led the way. The Age of the Medici (1972) is a further major achievement amidst 40 hours of variably innovative historical films made to reach the then new mass audience, his project culturally if not politically relatable, at least in intensity of commitment, to Godard and Gorin’s films in  the Dziga Vertov period also funded by television but then rejected for telecasting. Medici is “a superbly detailed examination of the philosophy and artistic underpinning of Renaissance humanism in the context of quattrocento Florence” (Brunette 316). The joining of two biographies - Cosimo de’ Medici and Leon Battista Medici -  is also, as Brunette points out, the joining of politics and art which emerges as the principal theme of the series.

The Age of the Medici 

Rossellini said in an interview that the “great mission of art is to free men (sic) from conditioning.” It is some kind of a tribute to his continuity of purpose that his work has produced film essays of comparable lucidity to the first line of his work for the cinema screen. At the same time, as David Forgacs notes, Rossellini’s historical films belong to a particular moment in both European television and also in the study of history. It was a commitment that occupied the last 14 years of his life the 40 hours of running time accounting for half his completed work, for him constituted a complete break with what he had come to see, in essence, as the escapism of commercial cinema. Television he saw as “an art without traditions” - at that time in Europe (RAI in Italy) exclusively a publicly funded service - ”a site upon which the foundations of a new art and society might be laid.” 

Michael Cramer in his book, ‘Utopian Television’, in which the work “beyond cinema” of Godard and Peter Watkins is linked to Rossellini’s project to break with existing (fiction) cinema, so leaving the role of auteur and assuming that of pedagogue he insisted, not that of an educator.  Rossellini rejected education as a descriptor for what he was undertaking; “education” to him was inclusive of the idea of “leading, directing, conditioning” whereas the objective should be “to inform and instruct…the search for truth must be in an infinitely free way.” Behind this debatable distinction, Brunette suggests, “was Rossellini’s firm and apparently untroubled view that pure information, pure knowledge, can be conveyed neutrally” (255). What was “most pure”, Rossellini also insisted, was knowledge accumulated through scientific investigation going back to its beginning.

L’Eta del Ferro/The Age of Iron 

Rossellini’s “historical encyclopaedia” (he compared the scope, if not necessarily the aim of his project, to that of the encyclopédistes of the 18th century) was initiated by two series. L’Eta del Ferro/The Age of Iron (1964) in 5 parts incorporating found and staged footage, documentary and fiction on the theme of the transformative power of the technology of iron. The Age of Iron series was followed by what is considered the more substantial and innovative, La Lotta dell uomo per la sue sopravvivenza / Man’s Struggle for Survival (1964-70) that was conceived and written by Rossellini (but directed by his son Renzo) constructed following the same plan in 12 parts each of one hour, but with a much broader scope in surveying the entire history of humanity. Rossellini wrote scripts for two further stages of his “Grand Plan for a history of Western civilisation” which were never made: The Extraordinary History of Our Food  and The Industrial Revolution.  

Louis XIV

In 1966 Rossellini directed La prise du pouvoir par Louis XIV/The Taking of Power by Louis XIV adopting a different formula for the following films from the broad sweep of the above two grand historical survey projects, subsequently focusing on a single individual chosen not only for his (never her) importance but also as a means of intensively examining the relevant historical period. Financed by Italian public television or as Italian/French co-productions, Rossellini co-authoring and directing mainly with non-professional casts filming quickly seven fully staged television programs (several in multiple parts) on low budgets. His aim was to engage the audience by recreating a sense of his chosen subjects’ everyday lives rather than taking a purely didactical approach.

La prise du pouvoir par Louis XIV/The Taking of Power by Louis XIV 

“Rossellini’s insistence on the historical specifics of a given period must be seen in the context of what he viewed as a basic, unchanging human nature” (Brunette 281), the film unfolding as a reconstruction of the taking of absolute power by the monarchy in France in the mid 17th Century. Based on a synopsis by historian Philippe Erlanger, author of a book on Louis XIV, Rossellini’s screenplay was adapted from the script written by Jean Gruault, who had previously worked with Rossellini on Vanina Vanini (1961), a period melodrama comparable to Visconti’s Senso. Based on a story by Stendahl it was envisaged by Rossellini as a piece of “historical research.” His intention was not just to tell a story but to further develop the use of the zoom lens to approach the past through Stendahl’s fictional representation of Rome in the 1820s at the time of the Freemasons’ rebellion against the Papacy, to dramatise an idea of freedom in operatic mode (Brunette 236). Instead Rossellini disowned the film mutilated for release, a box office failure polarising the critics.

Following its television screening to an estimated audience of 20 million, Louis XIV was also an unexpected success in cinema release in France and is seen as the critical high point of the final phase of Rossellini's career.  Of the other television films in the period 1969-75, Acts of the Apostles (69), Blaise Pascal, Cosimo de’Medici / The Age of the Medici (both 1972) in 3 episodes, are critically most often considered the most successful when generally reviewed, against his expressed intention, as an extension of his cinematic auteurism.*

Intended to “make accessible large areas of western heritage that have only been trivialised, if handled at all, by the mass media” (Walsh 40), each part was televised to an audience of millions, 1964-75, to approval ratings mostly in the fifties in Italy and France by what was then a public monopoly.*  Many critics, not just on the left, viewed his television work “with incomprehension, dismay or disapproval for whom Rossellini was now choosing to work with what they saw as a state-controlled and politically compromised medium, in order to promulgate naive or questionable ‘humanistic’ ideas” about ‘man’ and human history;” (Forgacs 5). On the other hand Adriano Aprà, festival director and author of a book of Rossellini’s interviews and writings, in reappraising his television work “has made a strong case for seeing it as highly modern and experimental, consistent with Rossellini’s long-standing rejection of a cinema of fiction and distraction and his exploration of new forms and techniques” (ibid).

La prise du pouvoir par Louis XIV/The Taking of Power by Louis XIV 

Without the distraction of dramatic contrivance but with a stronger narrative than the other historical films and a masterful eye for detail, Rossellini in The Taking of Power by Louis XIV lucidly observes appearances, the life and political intrigue in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, observing the king's strategy of manipulating spectacle (display and ritualistic ceremony) as a means to concentrating power.  This central emphasis in the screenplay was Rossellini's idea (Gallagher 573). 

Martin Walsh acknowledges Rossellini's achievement in dealing with a welter of historical material while working on the screenplay for Louis XIV. Walsh refers to “the anthropological authenticity with which [Rossellini] essays an episodic and materialist presentation of objects, actions, fashions and time in a specific historical context” to equally organise a re-creation of Louis' system in a reflection upon the relationship between fiction, spectacle and power. 

As far as it goes, Walsh acknowledges that Louis XIV is “an extraordinary meditation on the nature and power of spectacle the cinema has yet produced.” While he also acknowledges the film as an important step in showing the path to a more radical cinema, “Rossellini's work in the production of meaning is masked.” He is content to use the cinema as a “window on the world.” What is disappointing for Walsh is Rossellini’s failure to capitalise on his opportunity to take a further step in his mise en scène in Louis XIV. His critique, rather than engaging in the dialectical production of meaning, is satisfied with being able to convey the information through more or less conventional de-dramatised narrative. Such a narrative platform was not compatible with the philosophical knowledge he selected as the subject for much of the remainder of the history series. 

La prise du pouvoir par Louis XIV/The Taking of Power by Louis XIV 

Rossellini adopts the means of what is being critiqued in the film: “ruling by 'the appearance of things' through an aesthetic [unquestioned by Rossellini] of 'reality and objectivity’.” His radical anti-formalism is linked to a theme of spirituality throughout the prior three phases of his commitment to show rather than manipulate, an achievement in itself that kept the potential of his pedagogy in a prism of humanistic utopianism. In other words, Rossellini is being praised for going far in his search for a new film language, while being held to account but not going far enough.

 This seemingly incisive critique raises questions about the purpose and viability of thresholds inherent in Rossellini’s grand historical project project for the small screen: the relationship between education and ideology (that of realism), and between art and entertainment (that of viability), questions then left  in abeyance by Rossellini’s sudden death within days of creating ructions at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977 where, amongst other things, as chairman of the jury, he insisted on awarding the Palme d’Or to a made-for-television feature, the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone. 

The essential meaning of the final scene of Louis XIV, as suggested by Robin Wood, questions the ultimate validity of the Sun King’s strategy for the taking of power through the manipulation of spectacle. What is being critiqued here in the phases of Rossellini’s filmmaking, as already noted, is the inherent struggle between the commitment to show and the desire to manipulate ‘using the same lens’. Rossellini, often in his film practice qualified his own credo - “the facts are there why manipulate them?” In pointing out “that all art is poised somewhere between exploration and statement,” Wood, while conceding that Rossellini’s art certainly makes statements, is primarily motivated by the drive to understand” (Roud ed. 896). 

Although Rossellini was a copious reader (“novels sometimes, history mostly” Gallagher 102), Nowell-Smith concludes he was “intuitive rather than intellectual [with] a unique ability to capture reality on the wing.”  Nowell-Smith and Brunette both see the ‘problem of communication’ as an on-going unifying theme in Rossellini’s work. 

From 1958 after his return from India at the point where a documentary ethos increasingly came to dominate his filmmaking, Rossellini spoke of the need “to hold people up to people” and of the realisation that “montage had become less essential… We should look at cinema in a new way. It is in the images themselves that the creative artist can really bring his own observation to bear, his own moral view.”

Jean Renoir spoke at about the same time of how he was trying to “extend my old ideas, and to establish that the camera finally has only one right - that of recording what happens…I don’t want the movements of the actor to be determined by the camera, but the movements of the camera to be determined by the actor.”

Martin Walsh, in his critique of Louis XIV, does not acknowledge the way Rossellini’s zooms are very slow, the optical effect made exploratory by combining it with the movement of the characters in the scene unobtrusively facilitated by long takes expectantly giving the past something of the urgency of events as if reported in the present. 

Michael Cramer undertakes an intensive comparative review of Rossellini’s attempt to re-conceptualise audio visual language in breaking with cinema and starting over again, coupling the terms utopia and television to bring about mass enlightenment which ended almost inevitably in failure, hastened by Rossellini’s death from a sudden heart attack. Cramer comments that the project “continues to intrigue,” wondering if this on-going fascination, “might have something to do with its very strangeness and improbability, precisely because it suggests something radically different from our present conceptions of television…Its truly utopian character has emerged more fully in its failure” (Cramer intro viii)

* The other completed titles in the television series are Socrates (70), Augustine of Hippo (72), and the most rigorously presented of the series Cartesius/Descartes (1974). At the time of his death he was working on a script for a film essay on Karl Marx.  Although essentially a continuation of the historical series, Anno Uno/Year One  (74), the title chosen as a clear cross reference to Germany Year Zero, on the life of Alcide De Gasperi the Christian Democrat politician who was Italy’s first post-war prime minister was funded for cinema release by the Christian Democrats. Rossellini insisted that he was presenting historical information without trying to interpret, exactly as he aspired to do in his historical series, “only managing to alienate everybody” (Brunette 356).  Allen Millen notes in his review of Francis God’s Jester that Rossellini’s pursuit of his main concern in Anno Uno with “De Gasperi’s martyrdom in the service of unity of the party and the country” was fully consistent with Rossellini’s “preoccupation with the potential unity of human experience and search for a harmonious force in human affairs” thematically apparent more than 30 years earlier in Francis.  Rossellini’s controversial life of Christ, The Messiah (75), was also made for cinema release, the latter with the largest budget of Rossellini’s career. 

*  "Adrian Martin on Roberto Rossellini”



Peter Brunette  Roberto Rossellini 1987;  Also essay on Paisan Cinematic Text ed. R. B. Palmer 1989                                                                                             

Sam Rohdie  Antonioni  BFI monograph 1990;   Also essay on India in Forgacs et al eds. ibid                                                                                                                

David Forgacs, Sarah Lytton, G Nowell-Smith eds  Rossellini Magician of the Real 2000                          

Tag Gallagher  The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini  1998                                                                    

José Luis Guarner  Roberto Rossellini Movie pbk 1979                                                                                        

 Peter Bondanella  The Films of Roberto Rossellini  1993                                                                         

Michael Cramer  Utopian Television  2017                                                                                                    

Robin Wood  “Roberto Rossellini” essay in Cinema Critical History ed. R. Roud ed. vol 2 1986                   

Martin Walsh “Re-Evaluating Rossellini” essay Jump Cut 15 1987. Re-print BFI Rossellini dossier 1981  

Simona Monticelli  essay on neo-realism Oxford Guide to Film Studies  ed. J Hill & PC Gibson 1998   

Christopher Wagstaff  essay “Rossellini and Neo-realism” David Forgacs ed. (ibid)  


Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson 

6 (15) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Jacques Tati

 6 (16) - Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Carl Th Dreyer

6 (17) - Italy and Luchino Visconti

6(18 - Italy and Roberto Rossellini - Part One

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