In 1962, Roberto Rossellini called a press conference in a bookshop in Rome and announced that the cinema was dead. “There’s a crisis not just in film but culture as a whole,” he explained. Increasingly, Rossellini had understood the great task of film as education, but he had been unable to find anyone in the cinema to share his passion. So, he said, “I intend to retire from film and dedicate myself to television, in order to be able to reexamine everything from the beginning in full liberty, in order to rerun mankind’s path in search of truth.”
When informed in Hollywood of Rossellini’s pronouncement, Alfred Hitchcock, who had never forgiven the Italian for stealing his most beautiful leading lady, Ingrid Bergman, sardonically remarked that it wasn’t cinema but Rossellini who was dead. In fact, however, Rossellini was setting out on yet another new life in film, one that was to absorb him for his last fifteen years and of which The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is undoubtedly the most striking and successful work.
When Rossellini made this astonishing change of career, he was already one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, certainly the most influential European filmmaker ever. He had burst to prominence at the end of the Second World War, when, with the studios unusable, he took his camera and borrowed film stock into the streets to make an unforgettable image of Rome as the city passed from German into Allied hands. The use of realistic exteriors and nonprofessional actors in Rome, Open City (only the two stars, Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani, were professionals) gave a whole new style to the cinema that came to be known as neorealism. Rossellini was to make two further films in this mode, Paisan and Germany Year Zero, rounding out a trilogy that captures Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war with a force that can still unnerve. These films remain one of the most active influences in contemporary cinema. Each year brings forth movies—from filmmakers as diverse as Britain’s Ken Loach and Brazil’s Walter Salles—that find their direct inspiration in the method and style of Rossellini’s war trilogy.
Rossellini’s cinema, however, soon took a different turn. He had gone to America and returned with Ingrid Bergman, then at the height of her Hollywood stardom, and proceeded to make a series of films with her—Voyage in Italy the most famous—in which the methods of neorealism were used to focus on the intimacies of a couple rather than the sweep of broad social moments. All these films, unlike the war trilogy, were commercial flops, but they found a small and very significant audience among the young critics of Cahiers du cinéma. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that for Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette, Rossellini was the model director and Voyage in Italy the template for modern cinema.
Between 1962 and his death in 1977, Rossellini was to make forty-two hours of historical films, treating topics as diverse as the Acts of the Apostles and the life of the seventeenth-century French philosopher Descartes, and at his death he was working on further historical projects, including one on Marx. Almost all these films were made for television, and although they have never attained great popularity, they mark the most serious attempt by a great director to film history. It is not impossible, indeed, that for future generations they may rank as even more important than his earlier films.
The Taking of Power by Louis XIV was, unlike Rossellini’s other historical films, a project that the Italian director joined late and with the narrative arc already developed. The story begins in March 1661, with the death of Cardinal Mazarin, who had run France as chief minister for nearly twenty years. We then watch the twenty-two-year-old King Louis XIV confound both his mother, Anne of Austria, and his court, particularly the powerful minister Fouquet, by carrying through his determination to rule by himself. This determination climaxes with the arrest of Fouquet. But that is merely a minor part of Louis’ great stratagem, which is to remove the fractious nobles who threatened his crown and life as a child from their local fiefs and parliaments to the great Palace of Versailles, where they will be entirely caught up in the fads and fashions of the court. The assumption by the sovereign of absolute power has, as its condition, the creation of the iconic figure of the Sun King, who is the source of all authority: economic, social, and cultural. The political intrigue that ends with Fouquet’s arrest, however, is merely a sideshow for Rossellini to the king’s deliberate creation of himself as a demigod. Indeed, the most dramatic moment of the film, as D’Artagnan steps forward to arrest the most powerful man in France, is seen only in long shot and from Louis’ point of view. But the camera does lavish its attention, in a scene that Rossellini added late in the scripting process, on the preposterously extravagant suit that Louis designs himself, and that he painstakingly explains will both ruin his nobles economically as they attempt to outdo each other in the latest style and keep them in check politically as they pour all their energy into fashion.
In many ways, Rossellini’s film methods never changed, even if his subjects did. He always wanted to shoot on location rather than in a studio, he disdained the use of flashy camera movement—he called cranes “vulgar and stupid”—and, above all, he always wanted to use nonprofessional actors, believing that they brought something real to the set for the director to work with. But for Rossellini, realism was as far from banal questions of representation as it is possible to imagine; the real, for him, was something that flashed up as camera and setting miraculously combined, and for that miracle to happen, he wanted nothing to do with professional actors and their carefully turned dramatic phrasing, nor with contrived sets where the camera was granted pride of place. For the streets of Rome, he substituted the Palace of Versailles and, to the horror of the French crew, shot where reverses were impossible and conventional “cover” unachievable. Instead, he relied extensively on a Pan Cinor zoom lens, which enabled him to use incredibly long shots, taking the viewer right through a scene. Nor was he ashamed of using the most transparent devices to dispense essential information. We witness the extraordinary moment of the “levée,” as the whole court gathers round the king’s four-poster bed before he wakes. As a servant draws back the curtain, the queen claps her hands. A visitor to the court inquires what this means, so that we can be informed that it signifies that the king has performed his conjugal duties the night before.
These incidental details, it can be argued, form the real subject matter of all of Rossellini’s history films—from the Athenians clicking their fingers instead of clapping in Socrates, to the assessment of taxes in Blaise Pascal, to the rolls of papyrus that constitute Augustine of Hippo’s library, Rossellini is fascinated by the material reality of previous cultures, which film is uniquely able to render for a contemporary audience. There are endless examples of this in The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, but one could single out the doctors’ examination of Mazarin at the beginning of the film and the extraordinary banquet that comes close to the end. As the doctors sniff Mazarin’s sweat, examine the contents of his chamber pot, and then bleed him, we are aware of the immediate physicality of a world before the flush toilet, deodorants, and modern medicine. The banquet comes as the climax to our introduction to the world of Versailles, where the French aristocracy is locked away in a luxurious palace with room for fifteen thousand. We watch the dishes being prepared in a kitchen teeming with cooks, we follow the umpteenth platter as it is formally escorted through the corridors and staircases, until it reaches an enormous table, where the king sits alone, dining in front of his whole court. And when the suckling pig is finally laid in front of the king, his doctor steps forward to say that he thinks pork is a bad idea, and the dish is jettisoned without even being tasted—a stunning illustration of the conspicuous consumption of the Sun King’s court.
One of the great triumphs of the film is the performance of the office clerk Jean-Marie Patte as the young French king. Patte had never acted in front of a camera. He was extraordinarily nervous and quite incapable of learning his lines, which therefore had to be held up on boards for him to read. Nothing could be better proof of Rossellini’s dictum that a nonprofessional actor brings something to a set that the director then has to use: Patte’s nervousness and the fact that he is never looking at his interlocutor because he is reading his lines from prompts is used by Rossellini to demonstrate Louis’ complete triumph of will over circumstance. It is this that makes all the more poignant the final scene of the film, when Louis, in a rare moment of solitude, strips himself of his finery and reads out La Rochefoucauld’s maxim “Neither the sun nor death can be gazed upon fixedly.” By turning himself into the Sun King, Louis has effectively aligned himself with death—he can no longer participate in the life of the court he has created.
There is only one moment in the whole film when we move outside the court, and that is the opening scene, as yet another doctor approaches the palace to visit the dying Mazarin. A group of peasants discuss the monarchy and remind us that it is only recently that the king of England has been executed. Watching Louis’ court from the present, we know that Versailles is incubating another royal execution, that a century after Louis’ death, his palace will be stormed and his descendants hauled off to the guillotine. Rossellini provides us with a picture of absolutism more powerful and telling than any history book, but he makes sure that as we watch the beginning, we never forget the end.