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"Cinema is dead," Italian neorealist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini declared in 1958, having reached an artistic crossroads at which he found himself discouraged by film's squandering of its potential to effect social change. The writer-director of well over a dozen narrative and documentary films - among them Academy Award-nominated/Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize-winning Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta , 1945), the episodic postwar chronicle Paisan (Paisà, 1946), and his collaborations with former wife Ingrid Bergman - would find himself rejecting cinema to embrace the disreputable medium of state television - but instead of selling soap he aimed to give away ideas. Over the course of the next two decades (and halted only by his death in 1977), Rossellini completed nearly 50 hours of television programming devoted to history, science, religion, art, and culture. For his trouble, he bore the stamp of didacticism. Viewers were left confounded and bored while critics and historians derided his efforts as irrelevant and factually deficient. Rossellini hoped to rally his peers to turn away from the commercial seduction of cinema and embrace the leaner, more efficient, and more honest medium of TV, but he ultimately stood alone. Even François Truffaut told him he was wasting his time.
It is a fitting irony that history has been kind to Rossellini's pedantic excursions. Nearly forty years after his passing, his television projects have been reassessed with a more forgiving and understanding eye, one able to discern the value of the works while not being blind to their deficiencies or the filmmaker's often contradictory inclinations towards, on the one hand, realism and facts over myth and superstition and, on the other, a belief in "an infinity of things... that surpass reason." Based on the short, brilliant, and turbulent life of the 17th Century French philosopher, inventor, mathematician, theologian, and proto-economist, Blaise Pascal (1972) followed on the heels of Rossellini's poorly-received twelve-episode science documentary Man's Struggle for Survival (La lotta dell'uomo per la sua sopravvivenza, 1970) and his historical drama Socrates (1971), starring Jean Sylvère. The production was funded by a Franco-Italian partnership between Orizzonte 2000 and Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF), with Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) kicking in the balance of the $160,000 budget. Production lasted a scant 17 days, beginning on August 16, 1971, and ending on September 4th. Rossellini's collaborator on Blaise Pascal was historian Jean Dominique de la Rochefoucauld, who had penned the dialogue for Socrates and Rossellini's earlier Acts of the Apostles (1969).
For reasons of financing, Rossellini had shot Socrates in Spain (subbing for Greece) but most of Blaise Pascal was filmed in Italy, at Magliano Sabina, south of Rome, and within the walls of the medieval palace at Bassano Romano and at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova to the north. Rossellini had wanted an Italian to play Pascal but La Rochefoucauld suggested Frenchman Pierre Arditi. Rossellini would later allege that he had chosen Arditi himself, based on the actor's resemblance to Blaise Pascal - a likeness perceived only by Rossellini. A mix of Italian and French talent rounded out the cast, among them Vittorio de Sica's son Christian, Tuscan actress Rita Forzano, and Claude Baks, as Pascal's contemporary, Rene Descartes. In place of a shooting script, Rossellini offered 350 pages of text and ideas. Dialogue was written daily by La Rochefoucauld (who also provided a continuity of scenes in which to disseminate the flow of ideas) and dispensed to the actors the night before a scene was to be shot. In the case of Baks, the nonprofessional actor was fed his lines minutes before filming and asked to recite his dialogue while traversing a crooked plank - all the better to leave him unsettled, unbalanced, and (to Rossellini's eyes) real.
Blaise Pascal was televised in two parts in Italy in May 1972. Though 16 million of his countrymen tuned in, RAI's measurement of the broadcast's "enjoyment index" hovered just above fifty percent. (Paradoxically, sales in academic books about Pascal, Descartes, and other philosopher-scientists of that era soared in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast.) Shown in one part in France, the film received a warmer reception, with Le Figaro hailing "a beautiful success." In the United States, critic Penelope Gilliatt heralded Rossellini's television films as "intellectually elating, benevolent in their detail, and remarkable in the time they allow for dissertations more complex and beguiling than anything else in the world's popular cinema" but Blaise Pascal would receive no American release beyond museum exhibitions. Abroad as at home, Rossellini had been marginalized. His next project, Augustine of Hippo (Agostino d'Ippona, 1972), was beaten out in the ratings department at the time of its September 1972 premiere by a rebroadcast of the American cowboy picture Jubal (1956), starring Glenn Ford. Long unseen on either side of the Atlantic, Blaise Pascal was singled out for inclusion in 2012 by the estimable Criterion Collection, for release as part of its Eclipse Series of neglected films worthy of reassessment.
by Richard Harland Smith
The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Times by Tad Gallagher (Da Capo Press, 1998)
Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real by David Forgacs and Sarah Lutton (British Film Institute, 2008)
"Pascal's Views on Mathematics and the Divine" by Donald Adamson, Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study, edited by Teun Koetsier and Luc Bergmans (Elsevier, 2004)
"Rossellini's History Films - Renaissance and Enlightenment" by Tad Gallagher, Criterion.com