1971-1980DramaItalyPhilosophy on ScreenRoberto Rossellini

Roberto Rossellini – Socrate (1971)

‘Socrates’ Mirrors the Platonic Touch of Rossellini
Something more than wordplay is involved when one describes Roberto Rossellini’s “Socrates,” which opened yesterday at the New Yorker Theater, as the great Italian director’s most Socratic film, in his most Platonic style.

Although the movie was shot entirely in Spain with lots of correctly costumed extras, who walk around what look to be the freshly painted, spruced-up remains of the sets of Anthony Mann’s unfortunate “Fall of the Roman Empire,” it concedes no more than it absolutely must to the demands of a popular cinema that seeks access to the intellect through visual grandeur and primal emotions.

Like all of Rossellini’s recent films, including the fine “The Rise of Louis XIV,” “Socrates” was originally made for television (that is, European television, which is apparently a lot more adventurous than our own). Curiously enough, television’s limited budgets and circumscribed physical scope, which might diminish the work of any other film director I can think of (except Godard), have given a certain freedom to Rossellini, allowing him to pursue his humanistic concerns unhampered by the temptations to indulge in conventional masquerades.

What we are now getting from Rossellini, who so moved us with the neorealism of “Open City” and “Paisan,” and then pioneered Antonioni country with films like “Stromboli” and “A Voyage to Italy,” is a type of teaching cinema that is not exactly stern, although it is uncompromising. It is the work of a kind of saint, whom I can admire even when I don’t find him especially congenial.

The passion of “Socrates” is the passion of its subject, which, to say the least, bears very little relation to the sort of melodramatic, window-dressed passion celebrated by something like “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Drawing freely from Plato’s “Euthyphro,” “The Apology,” “Crito” and “Phaedo,” Rossellini recalls the last years of Socrates’s life almost entirely in terms of Socratic dialogues.

Socrates (Jean Sylvere) moves about ancient Athens surrounded by a small cloud of followers, deflating the pompus, drawing reason out of the unreasonable, defining things like piety and pity, speculating on the aspects of the soul – and infuriating the wise who refuse to acknowledge that the first step to wisdom is the acknowledgement that one knows nothing.

As the words are Plato’s, so is Rossellini’s style, which is straightforward, pure and serene. This offers not much opportunity for performances, in any conventional respect, or for drama, even during Socrates’s trial and execution. The film is a series of rather proper, spoken tableaus that seldom erupt with spontaneity. (One exception: when Xanthippe laments the fact that Socrates is dying “unjustly,” he answers with some impatience: “Would you prefer that I died justly?”

Yet there is in this fidelity – in this complete refusal to let the film come between the audience and its subject – a kind of beauty and poetry that are all but unknown in the work of any other contemporary filmmaker. Unfortunately, the film is in Italian, translated by English subtitles that don’t always make a great deal of sense. However, if the film sends you back to the original texts, as it did me, it will have accomplished exactly what I suspect Rossellini intended it to do.

“Socrates” employs a minimum of cinematic techniques, and makes no attempt at characterization. We do meet Xanthippe, Crito, Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, in passing, but Plato himself, who was apparently ill during the trial (according to “Phaedo”), remains respectfully off-screen – played by Rossellini.
@Vincent Canby, NY Times, November 26, 1971

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