In the time of the Roman Empire’s waning, decadent, self-indulgent days, the Algerian-born Catholic convert Augustine was appointed Bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa. Seeing his own time, with its widespread poverty, greed and materialism, the Vietnam War, reflected in this fifth-century world, Roberto Rossellini turned his series of present-tense histories to the figure of Augustine, the splendid result being Agostino d’Ippona.Rossellini portrays Augustine, whom the Church will declare a Saint, as a roly-poly man, but also an austere one without Rabelaisian appetites. His former rambunctious, libertine nature, which we know about from the Confessions, has passed; when he notes, “[Y]outh is worshipping a cult of the senses,” he is applying analysis to the present while also measuring the extent of his own spiritual advancement.
The conflict between Augustinians and the Donatists takes up much of the film. These punk-heretics constantly inflict violence on the meek, non-violent Augustinians. But then Rome falls, all Christians are deemed responsible, the Donatists themselves are targeted with violence, and Augustine takes them in, providing sanctuary.
Augustine exhorts his gathered flock to war against materialism, poverty and social iniquity—and power: “All that regards power is like a river after the rain. It is born, it swells, and it is lost in the sea.” The destruction of Rome by the barbarians is a case in point; Rossellini’s Rome, Rossellini worries, may be another.
To which city does each belong? “If you are a citizen of Babylon,” Augustine says, “tear the greed out of your heart.” Become instead a citizen of Jerusalem, the City of God. But what of Rossellini himself, whose humanism has set him against Babylon but kept him from embracing faith?
Passionate, intensely personal, Rossellini’s film proceeds, like Augustine, with the analytic calm of reason.
Roberto Rossellini de Carlo Lizzani :
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