In the final act of his storied career, Roberto Rossellini turned from the cinema to television and from contemporary stories to historical pieces. Criterion releases four productions from Rosselini’s cycle of historical films this week. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy –Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces
Rossellini directs less like a drama than a pageant, with a largely non-professional cast arranged like figures in a painting from the era, right down to the formal poses and the full-shot framing. The sets, the props, the costumes are splendid and lavish but never distracting – they are part of his recreation of the world. The unemotional readings and unflustered reactions of his star, a non-actor named Jean-Marie Patte, is transformed by Rossellini into a confidence and a calculation behind the pageantry. It’s remarkably effective once he inhabits the center of the Versailles court, walking through the role without betraying an emotion, all part of the act. The dialogue serves not as revelations of character and motivation but as explanation and exposition, a series of history lessons that are startlingly clear and direct.
In the TV section of the column this week are a couple of British shows: Skins: Volume 1 is a raucous and exceptionally colorful British series about a group of high school teens in Bristol, England, and Saxondale: Complete Seasons 1&2 is another distinctive creation by actor/writer Steve Coogan. Skins opens with an episode that spotlights the most reckless and irresponsible behavior of these schoolkids. It’s an attention grabber, to be sure, leading off with sex, drugs, nudity (but only by the adults), bad behavior, and language that you can only hear on pay cable stateside. But as the series develops it dials down the shock value to delve farther in to the lives of the kids and their often fractured home lives and screwed-up authority figures. Bad judgment is not limited to just the kids here; they have merely made an art of it. In Saxondale, Coogan’s Tommy Saxondale is a retired rock band roadie and one-time counter-culture creature, well into middle age and trying to hold on to his ideals while getting by in suburbia. Pudgy, gray and often to be found behind the wheel of his beloved Ford Mustang Mach 1, Tommy is not a genius but every once in a while the wisdom of his years comes through.