The American Film Theatre was a mid-1970s experiment that produced several plays on film with casts unimaginable in the theater. Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo was no doubt included not only because it is one of the most important of 20th century plays, but also because director Joseph Losey had worked with Brecht in Los Angeles for the play’s first performance (with Charles Laughton, whose English translation is used in the film). I enjoy the film repeatedly, if not frequently. Self-consciously limited to a theatrical setting and style, there are few of Losey’s usual cinematic touches. That very theatricality is the source of much of the film’s pleasure.
Galileo is about as close as theater gets to what first attracted me to the movies. Like film “epics,” Brecht’s “epic theater” is also interested in large scale recreations of history. (Resources aside, the two differ chiefly in their definitions of history and the political conclusions reached from those differences.) Galileo is also one of Brecht’s less formally radical plays, not all that different in feel from something like A Man for All Seasons, as it dramatizes one man’s resistance to political coercion. Brecht may have chosen Galileo as his subject because the latter recanted his ideas, thus proving his weakness and limitations rather than his heroism. In terms of our experience of the action, however, those differences don’t amount to much more than a recognition of Galileo’s humanity.
With the controversial exception of the lead, Topol, the cast is an extraordinary collection of big names and talents of which a theatrical producer could only dream: Edward Fox, Michel Lonsdale, John Gielgud, Patrick Magee, Margaret Leighton, Micheal Gough, Tom Conti and a host of lesser-known talents in the vast array of supporting parts. Brechtian acting may focus more on the social geste than on emotional expression, but that doesn’t mean the actors are flat and uninteresting. Rather, they make socially defined characters into condensed, representative, often witty embodiments of historical forces. (My favorite moment: when the Pope tells the Cardinal Inquisitor only to show Galileo the instruments of torture, not to use them, the Inquisitor replies “That will be enough. Mr. Galilei understands machinery.”)
The film’s one big flop is the mid-play bacchanal demonstrating the liberating effect of Galileo’s writings. It might work on stage; on screen, it’s embarrassing, particularly when directed by someone as somber as Losey. His use of décor is more understated than usual, although sometimes (as in the use of large shadows cast against a blank wall on an otherwise empty stage), the “understatement” is more assertive than a cluttered set would be. Generally, he seems committed to staging the play as ably as he can, no doubt at least in partial service to the man who wrote it. The results are not great cinema, but we can still be grateful Galileo exists.