While never as fully engaging as traditional narratives, Roberto Rossellini’s “History Films,” a series of made-for-television dramatizations of important moments in European development, can be viewed and enjoyed repeatedly because of their unconventional approach and subjects. For anyone interested in seeing history treated seriously as a complex, contradictory, even surprising process rather than a cut and dried conflict between moral certainty and villainy, they are almost guaranteed to please, even if the pleasure is more intellectual than emotional.
Not all are equally involving. I have seen five, of which The Age of the Medici requires the most dedication. That may be because the other four are centered on individuals, whereas Medici attempts to evoke an entire era. (At 255 minutes, it is also very long, although divided into three episodes.) “Characters” exist to introduce important historical themes, they don’t have lives of their own. Even Cosimo is little more than a stick figure who always seems to know how to increase his wealth and influence in a way that will demonstrate important Italian Renaissance innovations. (He doesn’t even figure in the last hour or so of the final episode.)
I nonetheless enjoy The Age of the Medici more each time I watch it, although not so much to learn anything new. Returning to it is like the placid pleasure of re-reading a favorite non-fiction book because the History Films are remarkably relaxed given the seriousness of their subjects. It is worth stressing, however, that while based on real people and events, they are fictional and dramatic, in a didactic, mildly pedantic way. It is that unusual combination of historical fidelity and subdued narrative that makes the films so unique.
They are also extraordinary to look at, with the physical environment often featured as an integral part of the subject. For example, the extravagant spectacle in La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV is shown to be a deliberate instrument of state policy. In Medici, much time is spent looking at and talking about the tools used by Leon Battista Alberti to demonstrate how Renaissance intellectual exploration was moving from Medieval cosmology into an understanding of the material, physical world. Unlike the average British costume film, say, dressed to impress, but too artfully composed to be anything more than an idealized manipulation of the past, Rossellini’s carefully constructed historical environments exist to be used. For Rossellini, “history” is as much about the ideas, artifacts, food and physical surroundings, in short, the day-to-day life of the past, as it is the action of individuals. Indeed, people are shown as products of, and deeply embedded in, their historical moments.
Clearly the results are not for everyone, any more than news stories that refuse to simplify complex issues top the ratings. Nor do the History Films substitute for the insight that a good book on the subject could provide. They nonetheless remain unique testaments to one filmmaker’s abiding respect for the past, for cinema and for his audience.