One of my objections to the mantra that film is all about “telling a good story” is that the insistence ignores the limitations a “good story” imposes on subject matter. Some material may simply not lend itself to smooth, suspenseful linear exposition, which does not make it unworthy, just difficult to pour into the bottle of dramatic expectation. And if you insist the bottle is more important than what it contains, you deprive yourself of a wealth of expressive possibility.
Roberto Rossellini’s Blaise Pascal provides an excellent counter-argument. The life and work of the 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist are not exactly the kind of thing likely to set audience pulses racing. It’s not just that Pascal’s life-long pursuit of scientific and moral truth is both difficult to grasp and contrary to normal cinematic exposition. It is also a matter of how to deal with such matters in ways that involve a spectator, while remaining as serious as the character about his dilemmas and inquiries. Rossellini addresses this challenge with a slow, methodical approach that eliminates just about all of the ingredients of traditional story-telling (no sex, no violence, no suspense, no external conflict), almost as if they are “unworthy.”
One of the consequences is choppy story-telling. Pascal’s transition from early scientific experimentation to spiritual quest makes for a rocky evolution, the more so since both are essentially internal and difficult to demonstrate dramatically or visually. One moment Pascal advocates scientific method. The next he insists on the limitations of materialism. For a while he’s gadding about with the Parisian upper-crust, then he turns around to express his disgust with frivolous living.
While such schizoid behavior could be defended as demonstrating the contradictory complexity of any fully realized character, the defense is unnecessary. The film shows Pascal developing from skepticism to surrendering to an ineffable spiritual seriousness. By devoting a good deal of time to Pascal’s religious struggles and questioning, his yearning for redemption as he nears his end makes sense as a product of the internal confusion we not only witness, but share in a confrontation with the irresistible infinity of death.
The final sequences, as the terminally ill Pascal lies in bed, settling his worldly affairs and waiting for absolution are staged so simply and powerfully that questions of narrative logic or formal construction evaporate. So too does the desire for any synthetic uplift of the kind Hollywood inevitably imposes on religious material. There are no tearful close-ups, no soaring strings or heavenly choir. Instead, there is a pristine purity of feeling, a submission to an absolute clarity of expression that reduces Pascal’s uncertainty and our desire for dramatic heightening to irrelevance. The ending is as close to genuine religious sentiment as the baroque, materialist medium of film is ever likely to achieve because it is based on a radical simplicity that is the only way to contain and express ineluctable, transcendent spirituality.