Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment
In the final phase of his career, Italian master Roberto Rossellini embarked on a dramatic, daunting project: a series of television films about knowledge and history, made in an effort to teach, where contemporary media were failing. Looking at the Western world’s major figures and moments, yet focusing on the small details of daily life, Rossellini was determined not to recount history but to relive it, as it might have been, unadorned but full of the drama of the everyday. This selection of Rossellini’s history films presents The Age of the Medici, Cartesius, and Blaise Pascal—works that don’t just enliven the past but illuminate the ideas that brought us to where we are today.
Through their Eclipse line Criterion presents a box set of Roberto Rossellini’s history films (all made for television,) which includes The Age of the Medici, Cartesius, and Blaise Pascal. The three episodes of The Age of the Medici are spread over one dual-layer disc and another single-layer disc, while the other two films get their own dual-layer disc for a total of four discs. Each film is presented in its television aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and there are slight black borders around some of the episodes (you can see them in the grabs below.)
The image over all three films is very strong and was a pleasant surprise. In comparison with another of Rossellini’s history films that Criterion released, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, it shares some similarities, excels in a few areas, and isn’t as strong in others. Much stronger with this release are colours, which don’t seem to be as dull or as muted as they do with the Louis XIV release. The palette is still limited, sticking to what would have been more common for the time period the film’s take place, but they stand out a little more here. Sharpness and detail are quite strong, with a few instances of softness spread about. Compression artifacts are noticeable and get a little heavier with certain films or episodes from the films. Age of the Medici probably presents the most noticeable instances of noise and artifacts, which for me seemed to be heavier with episodes two and three.
I was also quite surprised at how extensively these seemed to have been cleaned up. I was expecting quite a bit of damage but I’m pleased to say there is very little. Cartesius may present more damage than the other films, but it really only comes down to a few bits of debris popping up here and there. Occasionally you’ll see lines, a heavier amount of grain, or some odd effects during transitions, like the colour fading or bleaching out, but only for a second or so.
I was quite impressed and very pleased. A great amount of time went into restoring these films and the picture on all them are quite lovely. A wonderful surprise.
Multiple tracks are provided for a couple of the films, multiple tracks being a first for an Eclipse release I believe (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.) All of the tracks are presented in Dolby Digital mono.
Medici comes with an Italian track and an English track. The film looks to have been actually made in English since the lip movements match closer to the English track (the Louis XIV disc’s supplements mention that most of Rossellini’s history films were recorded in English in the hopes of selling them to North American broadcasters, with little to no luck.) As funny as it may seem, though, the Italian track actually sounds a little better, even if it is an obvious dub. The English track sounds a little more distant and hollow, more separated from the action, despite the fact it synchs with the performers’ lips.
Cartesius only contains an Italian track, even though it’s obvious the film was recorded in another language (I assume English) since lips do not synch with the Italian being spoken (and there’s more obvious instances where someone’s talking but mouths aren’t moving.) The sound quality on this one may be the weakest, sounding a bit distorted throughout, with a slight echo. There’s also a more noticeable background hiss.
Blaise Pascal presents both a French track and an Italian track. I watched the film in French and then went back and sampled the Italian. In this case the tracks themselves are about the same quality which is pretty good, the Italian maybe sounding a tad sharper. There’s a slight bit of a noise and a little distortion in both, but overall both are solid mono tracks.
I do want to mention one interesting thing about this disc in particular, though. When comparing I noticed the disc did not allow me to simply hit the audio button on my remote to switch between tracks, nor would it let me shut the subtitles off. I had to go to the menu and alternate between tracks. At first I wondered why Criterion would disable the remote buttons (and only on this disc) but then noticed that the subtitles actually differ between each track, though in subtle ways. Here’s a sample from the beginning of Chapter 2, with a quotation from the bible, with the French track presenting this subtitle translation:
Moses was tending his flock on the mountain of God and the Lord appeared to him as a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. He saw the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.
The Italian track presents the following subtitle translation:
Moses was a shepherd when he climbed God's mountain. The Lord appeared to him as a burning flame coming out of a bush. He saw the bush did not burn and was not consumed.
There are also other subtle differences throughout (where one track will present “You wish to see me?” and the other will present “You requested to see me?”) I found this completely bizarre, but interesting. There's no mention as to why this was done, at least on this set.
This is an Eclipse release, which as most know is a more economic line from Criterion, its purpose being to bring more of the “forgotten” or “overshadowed” films to DVD. To keep prices low they contain no supplements. This release, though, does contain a little more than previous Eclipse sets. Like always we get notes for each film, though this time they’re attributed to an author, Tag Gallagher, who wrote a book on the director and also supplied a visual essay for the Criterion release of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. Medici actually comes with a 4-page insert, which not only goes over that particular film and its subject matter, but also covers Rossellini’s historical films as a whole. The other two titles come with notes presented in the same fashion as other Eclipse releases, with the notes on the films (and their subject matter) presented on the inner cover.
These more extensive notes were a nice addition and I hope Criterion does more along these lines in the future (plus it was nice to actually have a credit for the writing—this release also credits the producers and designer.) I also liked the fact we get multiple audio tracks on a couple of titles and the differing subtitle translations on the Blaise Pascal disc. As I’m sure, no one expects anything in the way of supplements here, but this set is a little more extensive than other Eclipse releases.
For 2009, Criterion’s Eclipse line opens with a bang. The image quality, overall, is strong considering the age of the films, and the release offers more in the way of supplements with more extensive notes by Tag Gallagher and a selection of audio tracks. This is a great little set, maybe my favourite of the Eclipse releases I’ve come across yet. If you enjoy these films, or are keen on historical pictures in general this is well worth picking up, along with Criterion’s The Taking of Power by Louis XIV.