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The Criterion Collection presents
Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment (1972-1974)

Who among these men will teach us something whose truth is absolute, and cannot be doubted?"
- René Descartes (Ugo Cardea) in Cartesius

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: January 19, 2009

Stars: Marcello Di Falco, Virginio Gazzolo, Ugo Cardea, Pierre Arditi
Other Stars: Mario Erpichini, Tom Felleghy, Lincoln Tate, Anne Pouche, Renato Montalbano, Rita Forzano
Director: Roberto Rossellini

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief violence, thematic materials)
Run Time: 09h:07m:24s
Release Date: January 13, 2009
UPC: 715515034920
Genre: historical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B A-A-B+ D+

DVD Review

Famed Neorealist director Roberto Rossellini found himself rather out of step with the times in the 1960s and 1970s, and determined that he would follow a different course: retelling history through lengthy television movies. Although he intended to produce a multitude of these films, he only managed to get about half a dozen out to Italian television. This set collects three of them, frequently detailed and rich glimpses into historical characters. A fourth film, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, is being released separately as part of The Criterion Collection.

The first and longest film in the set is The Age of the Medicis (1972) (4h:15m:44s), covering two DVDs and broken into three episodes. The first centers on the powerful banker Cosimo de Medici (Marcello Di Falco) and his relationship with the nobles of Florence. After Cosimo opposes a pointless war against Lucca, they arrange for his arrest on a pretext and anticipate he will be sentenced to death, though Cosimo manages to change that fate into exile with a few well-placed bribes. The second episode blends the tale of Cosimo's return and his growing relationship with the pope together with the story of the young intellectual Leon Battista Alberti (Virginio Gazzolo), who combines art and science in restoring Rome to its former glories in the third episode, while also taking a hand in training young Lorenzo de Medici, Cosimo's grandson.

Rossellini's selection of topics is interesting; while there are many moments in the history of the de Medici family that might have been selected for dramatization, these don't generally fall into that category. Rather, Rossellini is using them to make historical points about the nature of the age as it shifted from a barter to a banking system, as well as corruption, political intrigue and the importance of art in daily life. The most interesting bits are those focused on English merchant Thomas Wadding (Lincoln Tate), who tries in vain to obtain credit to purchase silk and unintentionally ignites a violent trade war. The performances range from satisfactory to wooden (unfortunately, Di Falco falls into the latter category). The costumes are sumptuous, though the set decoration is a bit on the spare side and everything is altogether far too clean to be credible as the early Renaissance. Still, there's a thrill to see freshly-painted frescoes by Masaccio and the like. Unfortunately, the low budget is visible in some shoddy painted mattes that are unconvincing in their own right and are poorly executed (at one point, characters walk right through what is supposedly a solid wall). It's too bad that Mario Bava, who was a master of creating and using such mattes, wasn't brought in for these shots.

Cartesius (1974) (2h:41m:55s) is more compact and focused, and consequently a good deal more watchable. The two-episode drama covers several decades in the life of mathematician/philosopher René Descartes (Ugo Cardea) and his ceaseless quest for knowledge. Set against a Europe that was just emerging from the darkness of centuries of Church-dominated thought, the time was certainly ripe for Descartes to burst upon the scene with his penchant for questioning everything, especially the received wisdom. The film offers a fascinating blend of images of high though and the chaotic life of seventeenth-century Paris among other areas. Whether or not it is a faithful depiction of Descartes' life is a question others may address, but Rossellini makes it a fascinating exploration of a character who sees truth as his religion, facing head-on the conflict between Aristotelean philosophy and the just-emerging notion of empiricism. His Descartes is virtually an embodiment of logic, seeking to find the certainty of mathematics in such diverse areas as philosophy and theology.

Interestingly, and of appeal to children of the 1960s, Descartes as presented here was determined that he could not reach what might today be termed self-actualization without traveling extensively, and joining the Dutch army presented itself to him as the easiest way of seeing a goodly portion of the world. The goal was not just the broadening that travel brings, but the notion that he must free himself of his childhood premises and prejudices, a self-awareness that is unusual to say the least. His development is paralleled by the development of the sciences, most entertainingly depicted through a series of public dissections that first start rooted in mysticism and wind up as pure science. The effect is harmed a bit by the refusal to use any sort of age makeup on Cardea, even though the story covers what appears to be well over two if not three decades of Descartes' life (Rossellini is not very forthcoming with dates or names in any of these films). Although Descartes is one of the most famous of Frenchmen, this picture and Blaise Pascal apparently received a very chilly reaction from the French, no doubt because the rest of the country is pictured as a rabble of ignorant religious fanatics. Be that as it may, Cartesius is one of the more interesting movies about purely intellectual endeavors that I've run across, and it does so without the amateurish effects of The Age of the Medici, and with much more attention paid to set dressing, which helps the credibility of the presentation immensely.

A completely different approach to mathematics and philosophy is on display in Blaise Pascal (1972) (2h:09m:45s), which deals with the life of Descartes' rough contemporary. Deeply immersed in his family's beliefs in Jansenism (a now-obscure 17th-century heresy that in its denial of free will resembles Calvinism in some ways), Pascal is portrayed as reacting to the abuses of the Catholic Church in trying witches and eliciting confessions of witchcraft through torture (a message that certainly should be relevant today as an antidote to Jack Bauer's antics.)

The ensuing persecution of the Jansenists by the Jesuits plays out as Pascal attempts to solve mathematical problems and develop principles of geometry; amusingly, he is willing to set up phony challenges to other mathematicians anonymously, and then come to their rescue by publishing the solutions. The balance of sincere religious faith and bored frivolousness is upset badly by the deaths of Pascal's father and sister in quick succession, leading him to an early grave. Several of the characters of Cartesius, including Descartes himself, make an appearance, though portrayed by different actors.

While this package is certainly not equal to Rossellini's great Neorealist works (and what one wouldn't give for a proper Criterion edition of Open City), these late works make a valiant attempt at recreating a historical world that can speak to the modern world. Despite a reputation for being boring, they are seldom so, and frequently posit important questions in intriguing ways.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original full frame picture looks excellent. There's nice grain structure, though it's never sparkly. The source prints are clean and without any visible damage. Shadow detail and textures are both quite a bit better than one would expect for 1970s television. Blacks are nice and solid and colors are vivid enough (though the palette is for the most part subdued). I saw no artifacting or any signs of edge enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Italian, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Apparently The Age of the Medici was to be released in English as a draw for American television, though that didn't happen. In any event, there's an okay mono English dub here and a slightly more animated Italian dub, with subtitles. They're fairly clean, though an annoying high-pitched squeak is audible at spots on Medici. The other two films are presented only in Italian mono. Cartesius has some mild hiss present, but nothing to get excited about. Blaise Pascal offers French and Italian audio tracks (most of the cast gave their performances in French, so that will likely be the preferred track). The Italian dubbing on all of the films is as usual a little on the dodgy side, but that's a fault of the production and not the discs.

Cartesius and Blaise Pascal sport scores from the prolific composer Mario Nascimbene. They strike a strangely ominous chord throughout, with low discords contrasted with a shrilly high violin section. Cartesius uses much of the same score elements, giving them an even closer association than the subject matter. It's not entirely appropriate—one half expects the movies to morph into horror films— but the recording is brought across well and the score definitely makes a memorable impact.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 97 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Production Notes
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The only extras are a brief set of liner notes for each film. Chaptering is reasonably generous.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

A beautifully-transferred set of seldom-seen films that put Rossellini in a new light, this package will be prized by those with an affection for intellectual history.


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