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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 24 April 2009
At last! Here are the three greatest achievements from the final phase of Rossellini's career in good transfers and - where appropriate - with a choice of different languages on the soundtrack, in addition to the subtitles. Previous (overpriced) VHS issues of two of them were visually poor, and offered only the Italian soundtrack version of "Blaise Pascal" (the French is better) and the English version of "Age of the Medici" (the Italian is MUCH better!); and an earlier DVD issue of the third, "Cartesius", was excellent but not easily available.

That Rossellini spent his last decade or so making what might be called docu-dramas for TV is due to the tragically widespread misinterpretation and undervaluing of his work in the two decades before. There were always admirers - especially in France in the fifties - who understood and revered his work, but so many others failed to appreciate its subtlety, originality, beauty and complexity of attitude that the director lost faith in fictional cinema. The documentary aspect that had long been a feature of his work took over, and he set about creating a body of TV films that would focus on key moments in History. The three multi-episode series "Iron Age" (1964), "Man's struggle for survival" (1967) and "Acts of the Apostles" (1968) have rarely been shown outside of Italy - though screenings of a gratingly dubbed, awkwardly truncated print of "Acts of the Apostles" in London in 2007 revealed that it contains some great moments. But "The rise to power of Louis XIV" (1966) was released theatrically abroad and, despite occasional lapses into stolidity, the intelligence, lucidity and elegance of most of its scenes impressed many viewers. However, apart from a handful of effective sequences, "Socrates" (1970) and "Augustine of Hippo" (1972) seem disappointing, at times graceless, even clumsy.

Everything appears to click, though, for "Blaise Pascal" and "Age of the Medici" (both 1972) and "Cartesius" (ie. "Descartes" 1974), and they are complex, near-flawless masterpieces. The long takes, the refined but insidious camera movements and the placing of actors in the context of images that vivify both the splendour and the squalor of their historical periods are a wonder to behold. If "Blaise Pascal" is the most moving of the three, it is also dark and chilling: in Pierre Arditi's affecting performance the French philosopher comes across as a sympathetic but quietly anguished figure, using his superior intellect largely for the good of others but unable to emulate his sister Jacqueline's devout religious faith, or to come to terms with the suffering he sees all around. Though bleak, the final deathbed sequence, with its eerily graceful tracks and ominously slow zooms, is sublimely great art that cannot be reduced to a single, simple meaning. By contrast, "Cartesius" glows with the light of enquiry and discovery: time and again a servant enters a darkened bedroom where Descartes is sleeping late, throws open the curtains, and daylight floods in, so that the erudite clutter of the restless thinker's environment is revealed with Vermeer-like radiance.

"Age of the Medici" is chiefly concerned with the devious social, political and economic forces at work in 15th century Florence (and other Italian city states), but the human focal point, at first Cosimo de Medici (altruistic but ruthless) gradually becomes Leon Battista Alberti, portrayed as spokesman for the scientific and artistic underpinning of Renaissance humanism. Rossellini displays a franker admiration for Alberti than for any other historical figure in his films, which could be seen as a loss of "objectivity" - but it gives the final section of "Age of the Medici" a wonderful sense of uplift.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 6 June 2011
I live in the UK. Finding copies of Rossellini's works which can be viewed in Region 2 is impossible. Anyone reading this review who can help: please release Criterion's titles for the European market! Thank you.

I recall seeing The Rise to Power of King Louis years ago. It was fantastic. I'd love to see it again. There's some great French made-for-television historical series from the 1960s / 1970s I'd like to see (e.g. Richelieu). Can't get access for love nor money. Do I have to emigrate to France just to watch vintage telly?!

Someone somewhere realise there is a market and profit to be made and release these things in the UK (and with English subtitles -- my French and Italian is good enough to order coffee but not to follow the intrigues of C17th politics).

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