I am an avid fan of Italian cinema, but one director I never really got into was Roberto Rossellini. I have seen Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Voyage to Italy, and I thought they were good films, but he was never one I talked about very much. Recently, I watched all of the 3 films in this Eclipse/Criterion series (actually, there are 3 made for TV films, two of which are essentially miniseries), and I was surprised how much I liked them all.
These 3 films are unlike anything I've ever really seen. I was really surprised by them. Near the end of the 1960's, Rossellini felt cinema was dead, and decided to make films for TV. He sincerely believed that television could be a true catalyst for change and for true educational purposes. Roberto believed ignorance was the biggest obstacle to progress (he has a point there), and he made these 3 films (and The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, a film for French TV that's available in a seperate Criterion edition) in a genuine effort to educate the masses of Italy. As to whether his intentions helped allievate the ignorance of people remains to be seen. The 3 films are surprisingly good.
The films are not very conventional at all. If you're expecting a sex filled, blood soaked, historically inaccurate Showtimes type series (or HBO series), you will be disappointed. If you're expecting films that will genuinely make you think and demand your full attention, you will more than satisified.
The 3 films have the same characteristics. Most of the shots are static, the takes are long, the performances are for the most part perfunctory, the dialogue is very dry and intellectual, yet all 3 of the films held my attention and are endlessly fascinating. The costumes and set design are absolutely first rate. In fact, some of the shots are reminiscent of Renaissance paintings (which I'm sure Rossellini meant to do). The camera work is quite good. The running times are very long. The Age of the Medici runs 4 1/2 hours (but is in 3 parts), Cartesius runs 162 minutes (and is in 2 parts), and Blaise Pascal clocks in just over 2 hours.
The Age of the Medici is the best of the films. It shows how Cosimo de Medici became a brilliant merchant and helped shaped Renaissance thought. Despite its 255 minute length, the machinations of Medici and the Italian court are fascinating. Cartesius is about Rene Descartes, and his struggles with finding a bridge between rational thought and the spiritual quest of being one with God and Jesus. Blaise Pascal is the saddest of the films, with Pascal going on his own Descartes like quest and dying at the end of the film. It's quite sad and moving, surprisingly so. These films remind me of the austerity of Bressons's work, in that all the emotion is drained from the performances (Bresson did this intentionally), and the emotions are supplied by the viewers. It's a challenge to watch these films, make no mistake about it. But they are worth the challenge and are quite inspiring, especially to those interested in the time of the films. I even broke out an old Descartes book that I had not read in many, many years after watching Cartesius.
I had never heard of these films until Criterion/Eclipse put them out. I'm glad they did. These 3 films (and The Taking of Power by Louis XIV) should all be seen. While they are difficult and challenging, they are immensely worthwhile.