Like his other history films, Roberto Rossellini’s Cartesius is less a biography of an individual (René Descartes) than a gateway into larger currents of historical development. Descartes was presumably selected as an important example of the early Modern transition from faith-based acceptance to the questioning skepticism of scientific method and rationalism. Descartes submits everything to the rigors of logical evaluation. He trusts only the irrefutable rules of math and geometry as a basis for knowledge.
The pace is typically slow and deliberate, with no imposed drama or romance. The drama lies instead in Descartes’s (Ugo Cardea) inner development, which creates a problem for audience involvement. Unlike Rossellini’s Blaise Pascal, which shows an equally rationalist thinker transformed by a spiritual quest, Descartes doggedly and unrelievedly employs the same objectifying logic in his life that he uses in his scientific investigations, leaving little for the viewer to experience beyond the determination to submit everything to rational examination. Once established, it is an approach that does not sustain over two-and-a-half hours demonstration.
Another character says of Descartes that he is the most restless person he has ever met. While that restlessness is clearly meant as an objective correlative of his intellectual dissatisfaction, events on the fringes of the action hint that Descartes recognizes the need to keep one step ahead of political persecution. He even delays publication of his Discourses, after working on them for years, when he learns that Galileo has been imprisoned by the Inquisition for similar ideas. Such caution demonstrates some worldly cunning but it is subordinated to Descartes’s tiresome insistence on rationalism.
His “restlessness” also makes it impossible for Descartes to settle long anywhere or form relationships that would enable him to express his feelings. The few secondary characters do little but act as his intellectual sounding board. The death of a loyal servant is barely mentioned and even the loss of Descartes’s daughter is treated as not much more than a plot point to be checked off.
The results are stultifying. I am generally sympathetic to Rossellini’s efforts, but Cartesius is dry, pedantic, repetitive and frankly boring. (It actually put me to sleep at one point.) Some diverting, unexpected details, including an early scene in which Descartes practices his fencing, or the eerie, birds-head costumes worn by men gathering the bodies of plague victims, occasionally enliven things. Scattered historical references, such as a few overheard words about the Thirty Years War, provide some context. But even the richly detailed depiction of 17th century Holland feels more independent of the action than an integral part of it.
Cartesius fails because it centers on a man who suppressed the qualities that would make him interesting as a human being, like an actor without a script crossing an empty stage. It is praise of a kind to say that the film is as rigorous as its subject, but also a warning to expect little pleasure.