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"I make historical films, and I try to reconstruct civilizations, customs, and cultures, convinced that, at bottom, man does not change, but only the historical context. The human 'given' is permanent, while the cultural 'given' varies."
Roberto Rossellini, in an interview given while shooting Socrates, quoted in Peter Brunette, Roberto Rossellini (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996
In 1958, Italian director Roberto Rossellini announced his disgust with world cinema. In his eyes, the movies were making people stupid, and he wanted to stop that. What followed was 18 years of what he called his "didactic" films, an attempt to re-create human history on film. And his special focus was the development of human knowledge. Mostly made for television, these films and miniseries tried to capture moments in history, from the elation of Renaissance discoveries in the mini-series The Age of the Medici (1972-73) to the horror of intellectual persecution in this 1970 re-creation of the last years of Socrates's life.
These films very closely reflected Rossellini's humanism, an underlying theme in all of his films, and his personal belief in the power of knowledge. With Socrates in particular, he felt a special affinity, and he had hoped to make a film about him for years. Although he joked that, like the Greek philosopher, he never made any money, his persecution over the marriage to Ingrid Bergman and the increasing difficulties he experienced finding financing in later years helped him identify with the persecution of a man eventually forced to commit suicide by a state that had little understanding of his lessons about the power of rationalism and the human conscience.
He finally secured financing in a joint deal involving RAI, the Italian television network, Spain's TVE and France's ORTF. The latter had previously produced his The Rise of Louis XIV (1966), one of the more successful of his television films. RAI had also financed previous films, including his documentary on Sicily, Idea di un'isola (1967) and the mini-series The Iron Age (1965). He had had problems, however, with the Italian network's interference with his work, and they would continue with Socrates. At one point he refused to continue filming until they replaced an on-location representative with whom he did not feel he could work.
Like many of his later films, Socrates was produced by Rossellini's son Renzo. The younger Rossellini had gotten his start working on his father's films, serving as an assistant director on such pictures as Il Generale Della Rovere (1959) and a writer on Idea di un'isola. He also took a few stabs at directing, starting with an episode of the omnibus film Love at Twenty (1962) and including the mini-series La lotta dell'uomo per la sua sopravvivenza (1970), written by his father. Primarily, however, he served as Rossellini's producer, starting with Idea di un'isola and continuing through Cartesius (1974). After that, he went on to produce such acclaimed international films as Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1982) and Federico Fellini's And the Ship Sails On (1983).
It wasn't just financing that made Socrates an international production. It featured a largely French and Spanish cast, and Rossellini shot the film in Spain, although his backers would have financed location shooting in Greece. At the time, however, that nation was under a military dictatorship, and the director refused to work with them. He also claimed that he could find more interesting facial types for the supporting cast in Spain. A few interiors were shot in Samuel Bronston's studio in Madrid, but most of the shooting took place in Patones Arriba, a small town 50 miles away from the capital, where the town square stood in for the Athenian agora.
As in most of his historical films, Rossellini made few concessions to conventional dramatic structure in Socrates. Most of the film consists of medium shots, with only a few zooms at important moments to break up the image. He also made few demands on his cast to flesh out the script, most of it taken from the dialogues of Plato as translated by de la Rochefoucauld. Yet the film throughout is filled with details of ancient Greek life, the product of the director's painstaking research. He also painstakingly lays out the Athenian legal system on screen, creating a detailed context in which to view Socrates's final trial and condemnation. As a result, the city of Athens becomes more than just a colorful and exotic location but another character in the film, a set of what he called "cultural 'givens'" in which to play out what he saw as a timeless tale.
Throughout the film, Rossellini also layers his viewpoint of Socrates, adding a symbolic element to the near-documentary depiction of the past. Whenever possible, he draws parallels between the philosopher and another martyred searcher for truth, Jesus. Socrates's students are consistently referred to as disciples, and they even share a cup with their master that resembles the chalice from the last supper. There are also references to the man as "the good shepherd."
Socrates won a special prize at the Venice Film Festival, where it screened out of competition, but, like most of Rossellini's other didactic films, it did not fare well with audiences or critics. It certainly didn't help that RAI waited a year after the festival triumph to air it and then split the film into two parts in competition with its competitors' most popular programs. With the exception of a few of his die-hard champions like Andrew Sarris, the critical establishment dismissed Socrates and Rossellini's later films as shallow, dry and lacking in film technique. In particular, the leftist critics in Italy complained that the director had robbed the philosopher of his radical message. More recently, however, critics have begun a serious reappraisal of his work in this area, both as an extension of the Neorealism he had helped pioneer in his earlier films and as a new kind of minimalist cinema.
Producer: Renzo Rossellini
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Rossellini, Marcella Mariani
Based on dialogues by Jean-Dominique de la RouchefoucauldCinematography: Jorge H. Martin
Music: Mario Nascimbene
Cast: Jean Sylvere (Socrate), Anne Caprile (Santippe), Giuseppe Mannajuolo (Apollodoro), Ricardo Palacios (Critone), Antonio Medina (Platone), Julio Morales (Antistene).
by Frank Miller