It is tempting to suggest that the most interesting thing about Roberto Rossellini’s “History Film” Socrates is what it does not contain. Knowing that Socrates will eventually be forced to drink hemlock for his beliefs, the setup seems ripe for the kind of heroic melodrama that pits the protagonist against an unjust society, sort of “A Greek for All Seasons.” That the film lacks such easy sympathy is, if not the reason for its appeal, certainly a noteworthy distinction. Instead, it engages through other means.
By eschewing empathy, Socrates has time for something far more difficult than traditional dramatic involvement, a serious demonstration of the philosopher’s ideas and methods. Rossellini devotes considerable time to Socrates debating with his students and casual interlocutors, while embedding all of them in a densely detailed historical moment. Instead of exposition or dramatic movement, the dialog provides simple talk, but talk which demonstrates the Socratic method through examples of the philosopher’s reasoning.
To be sure, this approach is not uniformly successful or engrossing. There are times when you itch to move along, not so much because of the slow pace as in irritation at the philosopher’s willful contrariness, his inability to accept anything as straightforward. We become just a little too aware of why Socrates’s contemporaries had difficulty accepting him: on the evidence, he could be a tedious pain. It is an unusual approach, to say the least, to depict a protagonist in a way that elicits at least some sympathy for his opponents. The resulting discomfort nonetheless wryly confronts the philosopher’s all-too-human limitations while the impatience his behavior produces blunts any moral superiority we might feel toward his antagonists.
Other weaknesses are less justifiable. Some of Socrates’s adversaries are stick figures, and his chief accuser, Meleto (Emile Miguel Hernández) seems little better than a confused adolescent. Xanthippe (Anne Caprile), Socrates’s wife, makes even bigger demands on our patience. No doubt meant to humanize the philosopher and to show the costs of his willful honesty, she comes off as an operatic, Anna Magnani-like Mediterranean earth mother whose wails and howls are out of keeping with the film’s otherwise placid ambiance. Caprile transcends the stereotypical conception of her character in the concluding scenes, however, when she demonstrates commendable restraint.
Jean Sylvère in the lead provides measured intelligence throughout, which is not as simple as it might sound. In the absence of strong dramatic conflict, the character could become monotonous, but Sylvère and Rossellini keep Socrates from being one-note, even when he is exasperating. Their restraint bears fruit in the trial, as Sylvère turns reasoned argument, unforced irony and temperance into a quiet form of heroism, as if the very simplicity of Socrates’s presentation demanded patient respect. Socrates’s ideas can shine with crystalline clarity and rectitude because his courage finds perfect complement in the director’s unwavering integrity. Like his protagonist, Rossellini refuses to take the easy way out.