Magazine article The New Yorker

Out of the Past

Magazine article The New Yorker

Out of the Past

Article excerpt

For the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, there was no essential difference between his neorealist war stories, his romantic melodramas starring his wife at the time, Ingrid Bergman, and the meticulous bio-pics of historical figures (many now available from Criterion), which were the bulk of his late works. He made the internecine struggles and intellectual debates of centuries past seem as vibrant and vital as contemporary politics and intimate affairs.

The gem of the boxed set "Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment" (Criterion Eclipse) is the three-part series "The Age of Cosimo de Medici," in which Rossellini, with his distinctive sensitivity to the faces, costumes, characters, and spirit of the Quattrocento, seems to bring the world of Florentine paintings to life. As the great banker combats the rapacious aristocracy and brings prosperity to Florence, he also wins renown for the city through his patronage of artists and scholars, particularly the architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti, who is the protagonist of the third film in the series. With his invention of a light box fitted with mirrors to display perspectival views in motion, a prototype of the cinema, Alberti justifies his claim that "today one cannot be a good artist if one is not also a good scientist." He appears as a kindred spirit to Rossellini, or the director's idealized self.

Having begun his career during Mussolini's reign before making "Open City," the definitive Resistance drama, in 1945, Rossellini had few illusions about power, the proper use of which, for him, went hand in hand with art. …

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