Friday, January 23, 2009

I Yawn, Therefore I Am

Now, there are few lives as devoid of drama as that of the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, and Roberto Rossellini’s 1974 film Cartesius proves this. It strains at holding the viewer’s interest. After all, a life of study and scholarly contemplation doesn’t present a lot of opportunities for dramatic action. It suffers from a general shortage of dramatic tension. Will Descartes write that treatise he keeps promising everyone? Will he more faithfully maintain his correspondence with his friends to tell them his ideas? Will he stay in Holland or return to Paris? Has he found the peace and serenity he so dearly needs for his work? There’s not a lot here for Rossellini to build on. See Descartes cogitate. Cogitate, Descartes, cogitate.

This film is as dry and stiff as the algebra which its subject matter helped create. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it is monotonous. Rossellini’s visual style, normally austere, is here pared down completely. Every scene seems to have the same rhythm. We begin with a wide shot of a group of people, usually in a large brightly lit room (tavern, lecture hall, salon). As the characters talk and talk and talk, sometimes the camera will slowly zoom in to a medium shot. Then the camera slowly zooms out. Close-ups are rare. Reaction shots are almost nonexistent (I counted only one). From time to time, Mario Nascimbene’s dreary atonal music (composed of orchestra, harpsichord, and bells) will surge in the background. It is all very off-putting and alienating. This film is so cold it makes Kubrick look warm and fuzzy.

Ugo Cardea does the best he can playing Descartes. He is reserved and aloof. Dressed in a large hat, a black outfit with a long cape, shiny boots and a sword always at his side, he resembles (as he struts around, pontificating, with arms akimbo) nothing less than a somber one of the Three Musketeers. The rest of the cast are forgettable since they only serve as intellectual strait-men for Descartes to philosophize with (or at, to be precise.) This film is not entirely devoid of interest. It contains one of the creepiest looking automatons you’ll ever see. And the white bird-like masks which people have to wear when the plague breaks out are hauntingly surreal.

Still, this film is a dud. Although it does a tolerably good job of explaining Descartes's philosophy and his importance to science, a more traditional documentary, rather than this so-called docudrama, would have been better. Drama can be an excellent vehicle to discuss ideas – as the works of George Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard show – but it has to be done with a light hand. And Roberto Rossellini has many talents but deftness of touch is not one of them. He is going to educate us for our own good whether we like it or not. Subsequently, the dialogue in Cartesius is bookish, ponderous and slightly ludicrous. For instance, here is Descartes expounding his ideas in an elegant salon surrounded by listeners:

Descartes: …In my treatise, I also prove, with absolute clarity, the existence in me and in the world of a thinking substance distinct from the corporeal, but which of these two is the nature of God? I shall prove that God can certainly not be a composite of two substances: the corporeal and the thinking, because the mixture would be a sign of imperfection.

Fancily-Dressed Lady: Dear René, you speak of the existence of the soul and of God in a very unusual way. You have moved me.

First Gentleman: Your design is very bold and terribly shrewd.

Second Gentleman: But your division of reality into corporeal substance and thinking substance will raise many objections.

Descartes: I shall answer them all. Meanwhile, I must publish my treatise as soon as possible.
Cartesius was originally made for Italian television. Back in the early 60s Rossellini held a press conference and announced that movies were a dead art form. Why he would adopt such a petulant attitude is beyond me. After all, when you’re a famous Italian film director who also gets to bang Ingrid Bergman on a regular basis I think it’s safe to say that the movies have been very, very good to you. Stranger still, he felt that television (and Italian television, at that) was the art form of the future. Fired by this educational zeal, he began to crank out dramas based on the lives of important historical figures. Three of them have recently been assembled in a box set by The Criterion Collection as part of their no-frills Eclipse series. Cartesius is one, the other two are about Pascal and the Medicis (now that one could be good - lots of stabbing and poisoning). Separately, Criterion has also released Rossellini’s The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. How these films fare in comparison to Cartesius, I have yet to discover (and I will let you know when I do) but if Cartesius proves anything it is that an artist can sell out his talent to his own worst pedagogical ambitions just as readily (and ruinously) as he can sell out to political or commercial ones.

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