Yesterday I saw again Roberto Rossellini’s remarkable 1972 film Blaise Pascal, starring Pierre Arditi in the title role, and once again, I was stunned by the sheer beauty and depth of the film.
Rossellini was a master throughout his entire career, and his early films are some of the touchstones of 20th century cinema, but in these last, sumptuous historical spectacles, Rossellini seems to be aiming for something deeper, more mystical, more enduring and ultimately life-affirming. Pascal, born into a wealthy and influential family, nevertheless spent most of his life writing, thinking and experimenting, both in spiritual and scientific matters, and literally worked himself to death with his ceaseless quest for new frontiers on both a personal and professional level. Much the same might be said of Rossellini, who never deserted his vocation as a filmmaker, and whose work might roughly be cast into three periods; the initial Neorealist phase, then the middle section, with such masterpieces as Voyage in Italy, and then the final group of films for RAI, which are his most formal and theatrical works, and yet at the same time, reached the widest audience of his career because of their broadcast on television.
For years, these films were unavailable on DVD in any but the most degraded versions; then a few years ago, Criterion’s Eclipse series began issuing these, and other unjustly forgotten films, in minimalist editions which devote themselves entirely to the films in question, with simple liner notes, and no extras, but offering superb transfers of the films themselves, and faithful English subtitles. To celebrate the release of three of the late Rossellini films, Criterion commissioned Tag Gallagher to write an essay on “Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment” — you can read it by clicking here.
I remember when I first saw Blaise Pascal at the now-defunct Gallery of Modern Art in New York, where the film ran for only a few days; I immediately phoned up everyone I knew and urged them to see it immediately. For a time after that, 16mm prints were available, but then the film seemed to drift into oblivion. Now it’s back, and you can see it for yourself; a transcendent masterpiece that rewrites the grammar of the cinema with a series of exquisite, lengthy tracking shots, meticulous attention to detail, and gorgeous color cinematography. As Tag Gallagher notes, “Blaise Pascal was financed by French and Italian television, at a cost of $160,000, and was shot in Italy in just seventeen days, with most of the actors speaking French. It was shown on Italian television in two episodes in May 1972. Sixteen million watched it.”
These films are essential viewing; track them down and see them now.
Above: Roberto Rossellini on the set on Blaise Pascal, Rome, 1971, with his first wife, Marcella De Marchis, far right, and Isabella Rossellini, who worked on the film as a production assistant, Rossellini’s daughter by his second wife, Ingrid Bergman.
Click here to read an excellent piece by Manohla Dargis on Rossellini’s work.