No director I ever met impressed me more than Roberto Rossellini. He talked with such eloquence and passion about film that you could readily believe there was no greater nor more diverse art. For him, its roots sprung from a documentary tradition he extended as widely as possible, and my choice of his films is one that perfectly illustrates what you can do in this genre: The Rise To Power Of Louis XIV.
The most influential of the Italian neo-realists whose work came to be so admired in the postwar period (even today it is regarded with almost religious fervour in what we used to call the third world), Rossellini was also the director who most thoroughly transcended that label. It wasn’t Rome, Open City or Paisan that made Godard acknowledge his influence, great as both these films were. Any literate film-maker would be hard put to deny it. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that, after him, film could never be the same again.
He could make bad films, or at least films that were badly misunderstood, like the extraordinary Stromboli and Voyage To Italy, two of five films he made with his lover Ingrid Bergman – an affair that shocked the world and almost ruined him. But his greatness lay in his ability to make those who watched his films into active participants. There was no way you can be simply entertained by Rossellini. You have to become involved.
Lionel Trilling called him a highly politicised intellectual, but he was also a philosopher of cinema, and certainly his series of didactic reconstructions of history, of which 1966’s The Rise To Power Of Louis XIV is the most perfectly achieved, emphasised that.
The film opens with the sickness and death of the powerful and virtually regal Cardinal Mazarin and concentrates on Louis’s seizure and retention of power. Almost everything depicted in it, and much of the dialogue, comes directly from documents of the period. But it is also informed by Rossellini’s sensibility, which contrasts the ambitious machinations of this world with the inevitability of decay and death.
The demise of Mazarin is brilliantly handled: the doctors sniffing the old man’s sweat and faeces before they bleed him through the foot; Mazarin refusing to see the young King until he has applied rouge to his ashen cheeks, like one consummate actor facing another. The triumph of appearance over reality is apparent everywhere.
Later, with Louis triumphant at the end of the film, we see the King alone in his chambers. Having removed his royal clothes and the wig that makes him look taller, Le Roi Soleil reads from La Rochefoucauld: ‘Neither the sun nor death can be looked firmly in the face.’ Both long sequences illustrate that this is not just a history lesson or a piece of semi-Brechtian polemic but a dramatic and acutely personal reflection on how the acquisition of power is always transient. But the method of gaining that temporary control is brilliantly laid out before us, with impeccable visual and verbal logic. Rossellini uses costumes, decor, architecture, mise en scène and some amazing colour photography to illustrate how Louis created a hierarchy that had nobles fighting to climb the slippery pole, often bankrupting themselves in the process.
The end result makes one regret that Rossellini died before he could make his projected film about Marx – his grasp of social and cultural history might have enlightened us far better than any Russian hagiography or grudging Western homage.
Rossellini made similar works about Socrates, Garibaldi, Pascal, Descartes, St Francis and St Augustine. Louis XIV, however, was the most extraordinary. It remains the film that should be studied not only by anyone interested in the cinema but by anyone attempting the fictionalised documentaries that have been so devalued on television recently. Rossellini never cheated. He attempted simply to explain.