Rome, Open City
The Rise to Power of Louis XIV

Re-evaluating Rossellini

by Martin Walsh

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 13-15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

“Ever since ROME, OPEN CITY, I have maintained a conscious, determined endeavor to try to understand the world in which I live, in a spirit of humility and respect for the facts and for history. What as the meaning of ROME, OPEN CITY? We were emerging from the tragedy of the war. We had all taken part in it, for we were all its victims. I sought only to picture the essence of things. I had absolutely no interest in telling a romanticized tale along the usual lives of film drama. The actual facts were each more dramatic than any screen cliche.”—Roberto Rossellini, 1960

Rossellini’s place in film histories is secure, yet a persistent fog obscures the relationship of his work to the radical avant-garde.(1) ROME, OPEN CITY is cited as an exemplary work by Godard (“... all roads lead to ROME, OPEN CITY”).(2) Its influence is seen as seminal upon the formation of the French New Wave directors. It has been seen as a spur to the growth of cinema-verité. And neorealism, as a genre, has fairly consistently enjoyed a reputation for marking a decisive change in the evolution of narrative cinema.

Andre Bazin’s writings on neorealism and Rossellini founded the normative evaluation of Rossellini as the great film “realist.” Since then there has been comparatively little by way of critical re-evaluation. Recent articles in Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Cinema, and Art Forum, prompted by the (certainly justified) interest in Rossellini’s historical projects, have concentrated upon the “histories” as a remarkable new phase in Rossellini’s oeuvre, commenting upon the continuities from earlier work and the increasingly ‘educational” orientation. Useful though these pieces are, not one engages the central issue of how far Rossellini succeeds in his stated aim: “The great mission of art ought to be to free men from their conditioning.”

A couple of years ago Screen devoted an issue to Rossellini , which consisted mainly of translations (a long article by Marie Canella written in 1966 and some interviews) and a piece by Christopher Williams on Bazin’s claims for neorealism.(3) Disappointingly there were no textual analyses, and the question of the nature and degree of Rossellini’s ideological/aesthetic intervention into the conventions of narrative cinema went largely unexplored. Rossellini’s own claims for his work (“My position is one of complete objectivity”) were allowed to stand uninterrogated. Indeed the only article I know of which explicitly states the case against neorealism is one by Simon Hartog on BICYCLE THIEF, which appeared in Cinemantics, no. 1, five years ago. In it Hartog wrote:

“BICYCLE THIEVES [sic] is born of a theory which is not a theory but a style—a style which changes the wallpaper without challenging the principles inherent is the structure ... With its traditional musical comment and its sympathy demanding devices, its individual hero and his counterpointing son, the construction and conception of BICYCLE THIEVES are not threatened by the stylistic adjustments of using ‘real’ people and ‘authentic’ sets.”

Precisely the same may be said of ROME, OPEN CITY: which is not to deny the force of the film, its emotional conviction and vitality. It is, however, to suggest that its achievement is one which must be placed firmly within the illusionist tradition. The film has traditionally been praised for its realism. How is this realism constructed? There are two aspects that demand consideration. The first, on which most critics have concentrated, is that concerned with sets or their lack, actors or the use of non-actors, handheld cameras, grainy filmstock that lends a “newsreel” authenticity, finance from outside the dominant industry, and a collectively produced script.(4) All these factors are important. Indeed they help shape a narrative whose form is somewhat differentiated from both the Italian “white telephone” and U.S. narrative styles.

On the other hand, it is necessary to examine the cinematic structure through which the narrative of ROME, OPEN CITY is presented. To what extent is it different from the dominant U.S. model? Here the answer must be, very little. The skills of ROME, OPEN CITY are the skills of a director who has a total and unquestioning mastery of a system of representation built up by bourgeois film culture from D.W. Griffith on. It is a system of representation whose fundamental intent is to make the audience suspend its disbelief and enter the world of the film as if it were the real world. The audience is encouraged to read the time and space of the film’s actions as homogeneous, unified, “real.” The emphasis on “reality” at the structural level leads to a masking of the process of production of meaning. The signifying activity is effaced in an attempt to make us acquiesce to a response of “this is how the world really is,” of “how wonderful to capture the truth in such difficult conditions.” This is the prime characteristic of bourgeois illusionist cinema.(5) It results is a tension in Rossellini’s work that is quite intriguing.

Rossellini claims,

“I had absolutely no interest in telling a romanticized tale along the usual lines of film drama.”

At a certain level we can find support for this contention. His films have no submission to “stars,” most of the principle protagonists of the film die in the course of its action, and the individual is constantly subordinated to a social process. For instance, take the famed death of Pina (Anna Magnani). She is to marry Francesco that day, but he is rounded up along with dozens of other men for interrogation. As the truck drives away, Pina breaks loose from the Nazi cordon and runs after it, only to be cruelly shot down is the road. A few shots establish her death—her son being dragged away from her body, Don Pietro, the priest, cradling her limp corpse —and Rossellini cuts directly to the truck’s being ambushed by the resistance and the prisoners released. The narrative marches firmly on, barely pausing to register the individual drama of Pica’s death. There’s no wallowing in dying words or painful deaths or blood and gore, but simply the “inexorable march of history.”

And yet is all this radically different from our experience of illusionist narratives? The pathos of Pina’s death has been meticulously prepared for. Emphasis on the impending marriage has recurred repeatedly through the first hour of the film, and our identification with Pisa rigorously founded. The very brevity of the scene of her death paradoxically infuses it with enormous emotional power. The cutting of the scene is hardly “objective” either. Immediately prior to the gunshots, the camera is placed in the back of the truck, pulling away from her even as she runs toward it. The tension of this dual movement is certainly effective but hardly “objective.” It is an attempt to make us feel with Francesco, in the back of the truck—a staple trick of almost every U.S. director.

In other words. Rossellini’s basic techniques are precisely those of a Costa Gavras. He can structure a world which we are to perceive as real, natural, and unconstructed, while at the same time situating the audience on the “right” side. During Nazi raids the camera is almost invariably situated is a window or on a rooftop as if sneaking an illicit peek at whet goes on below. Our point of view is always that of “The Resistance” and the Germans are always clearly “the enemy.” This is fair enough, for this was Rossellini’s situation during the war and that of his co-workers. The problem is that it is clearly impossible to accept this today as in any sense a simple “reproduction of reality.”

The film stands and has the power to move audiences not simply because the Italians are right and the Germans wrong—and the film magically “captures” the “truth” of the conflict. It’s because Rossellini’s structuring ability is highly sophisticated: he can create an illusory sense of “reality.” One point at which we see this structure or system at work is in the way in which time ellipses are masked—a basic device of the illusionist narrative mode. Manfredi arrives at the apartment, meets Pina, and asks her to send for Don Pietro. Pina sends her son, then leaves the room to make coffee for Manfredi. Cut to a noisy game of soccer, over which Don Pietro is presiding. The kid arrives to fetch him. They leave through the church, walk along the street, have a brief encounter with another priest (the continuation of an earlier scene in the film). Then cut to Pina entering room again with coffee and Don Pietro arrives. The point is this. The events we watch between Pina exiting to make coffee and re-entering with the coffee are meant to last exactly the time it takes her to make coffee. That is, Rossellini presents as “real time” what is patently a filmic construction.

The “realism” of ROME, OPEN CITY is not a question of recording a pre-existent reality but a matter of the application of a highly sophisticated cinematic sensibility. Indeed it’s remarkable how much else Rossellini crams into this fetching-of-Don-Pietro-equals-making-of-coffee sequence. The efficiency with which Don Pietro’s worldly nature is established—playing soccer and tolerating the theft of bread by his fellow priest, for example—reassures us that not a moment of this film is without significance. But it is not the signification of a pre-existing reality, as Bazin would have it that is at issue. Nor is it a question, as Rossellini claims, of objectively presenting. For facts have no status within artistic discourse. Rather, it is a matter of Rossellini’s hiding his signifying activity away in order to suggest that the film’s significations have an absolute or eternal validation, as if filmic signification is “simply the nature of things.”

Rossellini has said in an interview that the “great mission of art” is to “free men from their conditioning.” A close analysis of ROME, OPEN CITY reveals that he succeeds in this only in a very partial sense. As Hartog puts it, the wallpaper is changed. All the surface trappings of commercial cinema are changed, insofar as a social statement predominates over an individualist one. For example, the only lovers’ talk of the film, between Francesco and Tina, is concerned with the future of their country, the struggle ahead, rather than with domestic details of a future honeymoon or seeing their future children, etc.. The use of non-actors for many roles, location shooting (for part of the film only) and all the other well-known, defining characteristics of neorealism—these are surface manifestations that don't in any way change our deep-rooted conditioning to a certain kind of cinema—that of illusionism. The way in which Rossellini constructs the “reality” of ROME, OPEN CITY (the effectiveness of its emotional atmosphere and its conviction) is through a utilization of the codes of representation that are precisely those of “the usual lines of film drama” that he denigrates. The basic structures of ROME, OPEN CITY in no way “free us from our conditioning.” They are dependent upon exactly the same codes of narrativity, of transparent representation, as the “screen clichés” Rossellini attempts to distinguish himself from.

Twenty years later, as he was engaged with his unique and massive enterprise, the historical films, it seemed reasonable to wonder whether perhaps some fundamental changes had occurred in Rossellini’s cinematic consciousness. He renounced the commercial stream in favor of television and statements such as, “I'm not interested in the cinema as such,” and “I think the artist has a very definite function in this world—it is to clarify things.” This stance marked his reorientation to an explicitly educational task:

“We have reached the point we are at through a very special civilisation, unique. I think, in the history of man, the civilisation of specialists. Their mission has been accomplished, but only in one sense ... the real question is to transcend the specialist and come back to man, because if man is made more complete, he will be able to participate in what he has created, and give it a real meaning.”

In other words, Rossellini’s basic desire in making the historical works is to make accessible large areas of the Western heritage, areas that have only been trivialized, if handled at all, by the mass media. These works include THE IRON AGE (1964), THE RISE TO POWER OF LOUIS XIV (1986), THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES (1968), SOCRATES (1969), MAN'S STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL (1970), BLAISE PASCAL (1972), AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO (1972), THE AGE OF THE MEDICI (1973), and DESCARTES (1974) (a total of more than 36 hours of film). In Rossellini’s view, his is an attempt at presentation rather than dramatization:

“I try to intervene as little as possible. My work is scientific.”

As before with his claims to “objectivity', we must read warily. One of the ways in which Rossellini has minimized his (overt) interventions is through the use of the Pancinor zoom lens. ROME, OPEN CITY was praised for its use of the hand-held camera, a choice he made “in order to free myself from big industrial organisation.” As the hand-held camera subsequently became the cinematic cliché of the sixties (e.g., Peter Watkins’ PUNISHMENT PARK), Rossellini began to search for a zoom lens of sufficient versatility to free himself from the necessity of cutting and the “tyranny” of fragmentation. In fulfillment of Bazin’s ideal, Rossellini now has a camera that is able to develop scenes in long, unbroken passages without losing the ability to move quickly from medium shots to close up. The integrity of temporal and spatial relations so valued by Bazin’s realism are preserved, and Rossellini’s manipulative presence becomes less easily discernible then before.

Yet, of course, it remains. We may trace its presence in the conventionally linear movement of his narratives, the psychologizing details that make his characters approachable, and the understated but nevertheless “realistic” acting (Mazarin on his deathbed in THE RISE TO POWER OF LOUIS XIV, for instance). The reason for Rossellini’s attempt to efface his presence from the audience’s consciousness is the same as that behind his de-dramatization of his actors’ performances: an anthropological rather than theatrical orientation. But his anthropology is of the dated kind that believes in the anthropologist’s neutrality. The idea that material takes on a shape as a result of the interaction between subject and observer plays little part in Rossellini’s conception of his activity.

Yet the vitality of Rossellini’s structuring sense is in many ways the root of his success in a file such as THE RISE TO POWER OF LOUIS XIV. (A literal translation of the French title, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, is rather more forceful; it emphasizes the aspect of Louis’ will over that of cosmic predetermination.) As with the other histories, a leading historian (Philippe Erlanger) collaborated on the script, guaranteeing the accuracy of detail demanded by Rossellini. Hence all kinds of information are presented to us in a documentation that fascinates by its very strangeness: the doctors’ dependence upon their sense of smell in diagnosis; their belief in the curative powers of rhubarb and precious stones; Colbert’s plans for a stud farm to secure the future strength of the army; the Queen’s clapping to announce to the court that Louis performed his marital duties the preceding night.

However, as Walter Benjamin points out in his Theses on the Philosophy of History,

“To articulate the past historically does not seem to recognise it ‘the way it really was’ ... It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”

Some critics have responded to Rossellini’s histories as if their primary achievement were the presentation of ‘things as they were,” as if Rossellini simply piled up detail upon “authentic” detail in an attempt to render the period “tangible” or “real.” Certainly the opening scenes of LOUIS XIV support such a reading as we (the audience) are taken from outside the court by the river into the court world of intrigue and power struggle. It happens in a manner which suggests the voyeurist presentation of another time—we are literally transported into am alien world as observers. At first sight, it seems as if this were an example of what Walter Benjamin has called “Universal History':

“Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive; it musters mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time. Materialist historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.”(6)

However, it gradually becomes apparent that there is a decisive “constructive principle” in operation. It is one that establishes a central link between Louis’ grasping of power and the primary techniques of bourgeois cinema: this principle is that of spectacle as a means to power. Indeed it is probably not too much to say that LOUIS XIV is one of the most extraordinary meditations on the nature and power of spectacle that the cinema has yet produced. (Incidentally, it is appropriate that Godard’s most Rossellini-like film, LES CARABINIERS, is also one of his most crushing exposures of the notion of “spectacle.’)

LOUIS XIV is a description of a strategy, a manipulation: Louis’ taking of power into his own hands. And the prime way in which he gets this power is by making himself into a spectacle, before which everybody is subordinated. Spectacle is power. And Rossellini makes clear that Louis’ accession to domination is the result of Louis’ contrivance, the result of his successful imposition of a fiction upon his people. And that fiction is presented in various ways: Louis is not seen in the opening minutes of the film. By the end we have no other visual reality (his coming to power eliminates all other worlds). The opening scenes have a confused, if not quite chaotic, aura as everybody jockeys for position while Mazzarin’s death is awaited. By the end formality rules, everything is neatly ordered hierarchically. The opening scenes are somber with deep reds, black, and the paleness of death, while by the end, gaudy colors vibrate from every corner of the frame.

Once Mazzarin is dead, Louis’ takeover is very rapid, and Rossellini’s mise-en-scene is perfectly explicit. Over a static composition we hear the cry “Le Roi.” The frame immediately bustles with activity—Louis is, literally, the source of life. And Rossellini crystallizes Louis’ centrality by putting the audience in the position of the courtiers who watch Louis as he wakes, dresses, hunts, and eats. This serves at least two functions. First, the presence of certain visitors to the court who seem to have certain things explained to them enables us to receive pieces of information—that Louis has banished forks from the court, that the Queen is informing us, by clapping, that the king performed his marital duty last night, and so on. [Note: Rossellini doesn't “invisibly” integrate these details into the narrative, as would, say, William Wyler, but emphasizes them in an overt “aside.”] Secondly, the audience is explicitly placed as ‘consumers” of Louis’ image.

Indeed the very opening of the film establishes the audience as observers. Starting from the riverside, the camera follows two doctors on their way to Mazzarin. Once inside, we never leave but are condemned to orbit Louis’ domain, just like the inhabitants of the court themselves. The extraordinary thing about it, though, is that our absorption is both allowed and interrogated. The further the film progresses, the more inexorably Rossellini moves us toward an understanding of both Louis’ power over his world and the film’s power over us.

Louis is explicitly presented as a manipulator not unlike a film director. As Fouquet is arrested, the camera watches with Louis, imperious about the courtyard, impassively reviewing the result of his direction. Near the end of the film we observe Louis eating dinner—an extraordinarily elaborate ritual exemplifying the detailed hierarchy that Louis has enforced upon each of his minions, which defines the minute range of each subordinate’s authority. Only after some minutes do we realize that we are watching this banquet along with several hundred others. Louis is on a stage, while the world watches: this is his trap and we are under its spell as much as his courtiers. The final scene of the film, after Louis retires from the garden where he had walked with his totally submissive and serpentine retinue trailing behind, is Rossellini’s last unmasking of the fiction, the spectacle, the performance. Louis enters his room to be alone and commences to disrobe himself—gloves, hat, sword, wig, pendant, sash, frilly waistcoat: he ceases to be the performer.

We are reminded of the trenchancy of Fouquet’s observation earlier recalled by Louis, “One rules by appearances, and not by the nature of things.” Louis’ closing words, delivered in an intensely reflective manner, underline his and Rossellini’s recognition of the dangerous power of spectacle:

“There is a loftiness that does not depend on fortune. It is a certain air of superiority that seems to destine one for greet things. It is a prize that we award ourselves imperceptibly. This quality enables us to usurp other men’s deference and places us further above them than birth, rank, and merit itself ... Neither the sun nor death can be faced steadily.”

Despite the ephemerality of all things human implied in the last sentence, the crucial point to note here is the way spectacle—or by extension, fiction—can “usurp other men’s deference.” This is a film of remarkable anthropological authenticity, in which Rossellini essays an episodic and materialist presentation of objects, actions, fashions and time in a specific historical context. At the same time, THE RISE OF LOUIS XIV is equally a meditation upon the relation between fiction, spectacle and power.

So we can see that Rossellini does indeed fulfill Benjamin’s dictum, “Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.” From the welter of historical detail provided by Erlanger, he pulls out a crucial idea—an idea of paramount significance in our own world—and organizes his film around it. What results is not an impressionistic agglomeration of “facts” but am analytic critique of the system of Louis’ power.

The problem remains as to what extent this reflection on spectacle may be termed a radical discourse. Critics persist in drawing analogies between Rossellini and Brecht—and it is temptingly easy to do so—but the case is not proven in any depth. Where Brecht’s writings of the thirties consistently reiterated the need for an analysis of the ideological implications of the signifying activity, a reading of Rossellini’s interviews makes one aware that he has little interest in ideological analysis at the syntactical level of film. We have seen this already in the way in which LOUIS XVI is dependent upon the narrative codes of bourgeois cinema. Even while purporting to offer an intelligent examination of “spectacle,” the film itself remains spectacular to a disturbing degree. The film may, as I have suggested, critique spectacle, yet (as James Leahy pointed out to me) LOUIS XIV remains “a process movie.” The thrill of “how’s he going to do it” shapes our fascination. Rossellini’s work in the production of meaning is masked.

Louis’ manipulations hold stage-center throughout. The result is that the viewer is “fixed in position” in his/her seat—victim of Louis image, with no possibility for escape. The very camera “cannot” escape Louis’ image, as we see in the hunt sequence, which is presented at one point through a series of left pans across a vista of trees, catching glimpses of the deer through the foliage. The sequence ends when the camera catches Louis instead of the deer in its frame and immediately slows down to hold on him, as if drawn by some magnetic force. A later instance comes during the banquet: a servant, standing on the left of the frame, is sent to the kitchen for the next course and has to pass behind Louis before exiting right frame. The camera therefore pans with the servant’s movement until Louis is in the frame, at which point the camera zooms out to a two-shot, holding both Louis and the servant in frame until the servant leaves and someone else approaches Louis. The scene is shot as if the camera is bewitched by Louis’ presence. It cannot leave him, just as we never leave the court environment once we have entered it at the beginning of the film.

“One rules by appearances, and not by the nature of things.” It is ironic that Rossellini’s mise-en-scene also rules by “the appearance of things.” That is he uses an aesthetic of “reality” and “objectivity,” as opposed to a materialist one, which would subject its own syntactical forms to critical scrutiny. As befits an artist within the Western tradition of liberal humanism, Rossellini is content to use the cinema as a “window on the world,” as a medium which may represent and reproduce that world quite unproblematically.

His attitude to the Pancinor zoom lens, for instance, is quite opposed to the anti-perspectival stance taken up by Godard from the mid-sixties. Godard worked, in a materialist manner, toward an emphasis on the two-dimensionality of the screen image. Rossellini has labored toward the perfection of a zoom lens that will not flatten perspective. Clearly this endeavor is idealist—and Rossellini is not afraid in LOUIS XIV to flatten the screen out into Vermeer and Rembrandt canvases, particularly in the first section of the film. In so doing, he draws attention to the painterly consciousness of his frame, thereby reducing its degree of “naive” realism, and suggesting the point of origin for our contemporary re-visualization of a 17th century milieu. Nevertheless, the “anti-naturalist” asides (painterly quotes, the actors’ restrained vocal delivery) are not sufficient to counter the fundamentally illusionist form of LOUIS XIV.

Rossellini’s files may occasionally have Brechtian moments, but they are never sustained. The decisive options for a Brechtian misa-en-scene (gestic acting, montage, separation of the levels of signification) are resolutely ignored. Stephen Heath argued (in Screen’s “Brecht issue’) that one of the fundamental characteristics of bourgeois art is the way it fixes the reader/viewers position vis-a-vis the text: this “fixing” is closely related to the notion of the ‘consumer” who is alienated from the production of the commodity—his/her position is “fixed” so he/she cannot become a producer.(7) Louis cements his power by defining and fixing the position of each of his subjects in very complex hierarchy. He says at one point, “It is necessary that everyone remain in their place.” Rossellini’s mise-en-scene analyzes Louis’ strategy while masking the director’s own. Louis’ subjects are fixed in Louis’ universe, and Rossellini’s viewer is firmly chained in his/her situation as viewer and asked to accede uncritically to what Rossellini presents rather then actively engage in the production of meaning.

It is in this distinction that the difference between the endeavors of Rossellini and Straub/Huillet may be discerned. Rossellini’s enterprise remains essentially “humanist” In its unquestioning acceptance of the transparency of his medium of communication, whereas through their unceasing formalist investigation of their means of expression, Straub/Huillet’s enterprise is radical in a more far-reaching sense of the term. Which is not, of course, to say that we should therefore cease viewing Rossellini. ROME, OPEN CITY and THE RISE TO POWER OF LOUIS XIV remain two very remarkable and important films, whose status I have no desire to diminish but a clearer placing of them with respect to the pole of bourgeois narrative, on the one hand, and the radical avant-garde, on the other, can do no harm and may eventually lead to a sharper and more useful understanding of their importance. Both films are important steps on the way to the radical cinema of the present and future.


1. This article will discuss only two of Rossellini’s files, ROME, OPEN CITY (1945), and THE RISE TO POWER OF LOUIS XIV (1966). This is because these are the only two films I have been able to see again recently, since access in Canada to the rest of his work is impossible. Regrettable as this is—I would particularly like to be able to see VIAGGIO IN ITALIA (1953) and VIVA L'ITALIA (1960—the fact remains that these two films are the most frequently seen and discussed and most totemically influential of Rossellini’s long career, and are thus particularly open to reconsideration, even if they do not necessarily sum up that career.

2. Although the argument of this essay is to suggest that ROME, OPEN CITY does not make as fundamental a break from previous cinematic narratives as has been commonly asserted, it should not be seen as paradoxical that Godard was strongly influenced by it. For in the contest of its particular historical juncture, the film and those that followed it do make great inroads toward a rethinking of conventional narrative forms, a rethinking further extended, of course, by Godard himself. On the other hand, from our present perspective we can see the limitations of Rossellini’s break from his narrative precedents and see that today it is no longer possible to claim his work as absolutely exemplary. This awareness is implicit in Godard’s practice, of course, since he uses Rossellini as a starting point (in certain respects) for his own work. Godard’s work makes the break from the underlying structures of illusionist narrative that Rossellini’s does not.

3. Screen, 14:4. All quotations from Rossellini’s interviews are from this volume.

4. This article is fundamentally concerned with issues of form rather then of content largely because it is the formal aspects of Rossellini’s work that have been ignored in the majority of criticism thus far published. On the other hand, it should not be thought that I discount questions of content or that I underestimate the force of, for instance, ROME, OPEN CITY’s engagement with the intensely topical issues of the time of its making. Important are its identification with the forces of liberation from fascism in the final days of WW2, its pointers toward a Marxist society for the future. These aspects have been treated (whether adequately or not is not my purpose to evaluate at this time) in most discussions of the film, whether in Rossellini’s reminiscences of the period or accounts such as those of Roy Ames in Patterns of Realism.

5. The tern “bourgeois illusionist cinema” refers both to a concept of art that makes art’s function to reveal universal, eternal truths about “human nature” and to a series of conventions that have tended to operate in support of that concept, particularly since the early 19th Century and the rise of a literate bourgeois class in industrial society. These conventions were transferred almost intact to the cinema.

It is possible to trace the origins of cinematic illusionism to a number of sources. First, the tradition of oil-painting with its mimetic perspectival foundations from the 16th Century on is important, even though it is only more recently that oil-painting has become a part of the bourgeois world. (In an ironic inversion of Walter Benjamin’s hopes, the techniques of mass reproduction have allowed the co-optation and fetishization of art in a manner which has led to the widespread appearance in this era of the “sofa-sized painting” in colors to match your home, in a beautiful from of your choice,” but that’s another story.) Central is the pre-19th Century emphasis on the illusion of three-dimensions which is created through perspective techniques on a two-dimensional surface, and the corresponding attempt at a painstakingly accurate “reproduction of reality (or, rather, reality idealized, perfected, fantasized). It is this function of painting that was usurped by still photography after 1840 and then transferred to motion pictures.

Secondly, we must note the seminal influence of the 19th Century realist novel (see Cohn McCabe’s article “Realism and the Cinema” in Screen, 15:2) with its use of the identification technique of the omniscient narrator among other structural anchors. Thirdly, the theater of the later 19th Century with its conventions of stage naturalism (Ibsen, Strindberg, etc.) impregnated the elaboration of cinematic codes and conventions, specifically in decor and acting. In short, bourgeois illusionism in cinema partakes of aspects of theatrical literary and painterly conventions of the 19th century and earlier and conceives of art as window on the world or a mirror of reality.

This attempt is dependent upon an attempted fusion of signifier and signified in which the materiality of language, the work of signification, is repressed from view in favor of the dominance of the signified. Language is thus conceived of as a transparent means to knowledge of the world beyond, through the window. The materiality of language is eliminated as far as possible in the attempt to show us the world “as it is,” unalterable, eternal.

Continuity editing is but one example of this attitude at work in film—the cuts are meant to be invisible. The language of editing functions simply to show the real world “unified” before the camera. It is through such techniques that the illusionist director is able to efface himself and his activity from our perception of the events on the screen. With Rossellini we are not aware of the camera movements per se but rather focus upon the object/person to/with which the camera is moving. In fact, the director (whether Rossellini, Ford or Capra) is in total control, but the evidence of that control is suppressed as far as possible. As Whistler once wrote. “It takes endless labour to eradicate the traces of labour.”

6. As the quotations from Walter Benjamin (in Illuminations) begin to suggest, Rossellini’s approach to history (and both ROME. OPEN CITY and LOUIS XIV are historical films) is fundamentally humanist and idealist. In this respect it is appropriate that the form of these films is illusionist, in support of that idealist content. But it is crucial to note that the history that Rossellini proposes, whether in the moralist terms of the earlier film (the differences between fascist and humanist/ marxist are described in moral terms rather then economic/political ones) or in terms of the emphasis upon spectacle as a means to power in LOUIS XIV, is hardly an adequate historical analysis in any real sense. As Chuck Kleinhans has pointed out to me, “Would any serious historian feel that Louis’ reign was explained by this one device of spectacle?” Rather, it would be necessary to examine the “evolving political, economic and social relationships in the Europe of the time, leading to the establishment of the baroque state.”

7. When I say the films “fix” the spectator as passive spectator, this should not be taken to suggest that I or Rossellini see the audience as essentially dupes or uncritical voyeurs who simply swallow whatever is offered then. What is at issue are the structural tendencies of Rossellini’s films which tend to minimize the spectator’s active role. The spectators can only accept or reject the film’s vision. The welter of historical detail, for instance, has an authority and an authenticity that is difficult to challenge. It has a meaning that is in a sense pre-determined, for it is fixed prior to the spectator’s engagement with it. As Cohn McCabe has put it,

“The camera in Rossellini’s films is not articulated as part of the productive process of the film. What it shows is in some sense beyond argument, and it is here that Rossellini’s files show the traditional realist weakness of being unable to deal with contradiction.” (Screen, 15:2. p. 20)

Insofar as space for the viewer’s potential engagement with the actual process of production of meaning is minimized, passivity is encouraged.