Judge Dylan Charles studies the enlightenment era of television.
"The mass media, Rossellini charged, were accomplishing "a sort of cretinization of adults." Rather than illuminate a people, their great effort seemed to be to subjugate them, "to create slaves who think they're free."—Tag Gallagher
As you can see from the quote up above, Rossellini had a fairly low opinion of television, and who could blame him, really? It is perhaps a blessing that he didn't live long enough to see the second season of Heroes, or his dismay would have shattered him. To combat this cretinization, he made numerous movies made for television audiences, meant to educate them on art, science, philosophy, and history. Criterion, through its Eclipse series, has generously shared three of these films with us, one each on Cosimo Medici, Blaise Pascal, and Rene Descartes.
Facts of the Case
Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment—Eclipse Series 14 features three films:
• The Age of Medici takes place during the rise of Cosimo Medici in fifteenth century Florence. Rossellini shows the day-to-day life of the Florentines as a backdrop for the rise of one of the wealthiest men of their time. The film's four hours are divided up into three parts.
• Cartesius (which is Descartes in Latin) follows the life of Rene Descartes as he tries to unite reason to philosophy.
• Blaise Pascal, surprisingly, is about the life of Blaise Pascal. He is a mathematician and scientist in a time where religious fervor strikes down witches and heretics with equal gusto.
These are just three of the films that Rossellini created for television, each one intended to broaden the minds of the viewers. It's a noble enough goal, one I wish more television producers would take up.
The Age of the Medici is the weakest of the three, being an extremely broad and lengthy recreation of Florentine life during the Renaissance. Rossellini is not content to keep his focus on Cosimo, but tries to show all aspects of Florentine life, from merchants to the Silk Guild to bankers and architects.
Rossellini's Florence is much cleaner and more crime-free than I initially would have thought. The citizens, to a man, are well versed in poetry, art, and sound banking principles. This is, most likely, not going to be appealing for everyone, except, perhaps, for accountants who have a keen interest in Renaissance era Florentine banking practices.
The Age of the Medici is also light on passion and any real emotional depth. I was never truly invested in the characters or in what was going on.
Cartesius and Blaise Pascal are far more focused and are the better for it. The audience has a chance to become attached to the characters, which makes for easier digestion of the deluge of philosophical ideas. Instead of becoming overwhelmed with the details of seventeenth century French society, the viewer can take in one idea at a time, which is especially good considering the complexity of some of Pascal's and Descartes's ideas.
Instead, Rossellini sneaks in things more subtly. At one point, Descartes discusses his plans with a friend while walking through the streets of Paris. All around them, doctors are heaving the bodies of plague victims onto carts. There doesn't need to be a lengthy conversation about plague in Paris, the complete lack of attention Descartes gives these workers drives the point home that the plague is an everyday occurrence in Paris.
All three films have a common theme, as the principal figures attempt to merge rationality with art and philosophy. Descartes, Pascal, and Leon Battista Alberti, a prominent character in The Age of Medici, all believe that reason is the dominant force that should shape man's notions of philosophy and art. Pascal and Descartes in particular must face constant opposition to their ideas from members of the church and philosophers who stubbornly refuse the coming of this new thing called "science."
Rossellini has given me a new appreciation for just how amazing it is that science not only formed, but eventually flourished. Early rationalists were condemned for daring to suggest that things like vacuums existed. Pascal's argument with a Jesuit about the nature of air and light was especially telling and it's a wonder that we have progressed our knowledge as far as we have considering the roadblocks that stood in our way.
In spite of a few potential inaccuracies and idealizations, I was inspired to dig deeper into the lives of the men Rossellini portrayed. In this way, Rossellini accomplished his goal to try and create educational and worthwhile television.
Criterion has provided the bare minimum of extras with this set, giving us only excerpts from The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films by Tag Gallagher. While these excerpts are well-written and informative, I would have liked a little more. The quality is also decent, although there is some scratchiness in the English audio for The Age of the Medici. I'm guessing that it comes from the original recording of the dialogue, however, and I assume there is little that could have been to rectify the situation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times, it was like watching an encyclopedia come to life—an encyclopedia whose facts I didn't entirely trust. French television stations rejected Cartesius because they considered it too inaccurate. Which raises the question: What good does it do to broaden someone's mind with inaccuracies?
It was Rossellini's goal to try and bring something worthwhile into the homes of '70s television audiences. He wanted to reverse the mind-numbing effects of mass media. While these films perhaps lack flair, they are certainly provocative in the ideas they contain. He certainly made me think about the history of science and reason in a new way. Rossellini tried to enlighten television and bring about a renaissance. For that, he deserves a pat on the back, before we all change channels back to Dukes of Hazzard reruns.
Roberto Rossellini is found guilty of bending the truth, but at least it was for a good cause.
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Scales of Justice, The Age Of The Medici
Perp Profile, The Age Of The Medici
Distinguishing Marks, The Age Of The Medici
• Notes by Tag Gallagher
Scales of Justice, Blaise Pascal
Perp Profile, Blaise Pascal
Distinguishing Marks, Blaise Pascal
• Notes by Tag Gallagher
Scales of Justice, Cartesius
Perp Profile, Cartesius
Distinguishing Marks, Cartesius
• Notes by Tag Gallagher
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