Roberto Rossellini (1906–77) spent the last fourteen years of his career making what he called pedagogical films, principally for television. In his view, these works constituted a major break with existing cinema; they were a new form, neither art nor entertainment, and the director himself now wanted to be considered as an educator, not an artist.footnote1 They included multi-part series on human historical development—the 5-hour The Iron Age (1964) and 12-hour Man’s Struggle for Survival (1967–69)—as well as portraits of innovators in the fields of politics—Cosimo de Medici, Louis xiv—and ideas: Socrates, Augustine, Descartes, Pascal. Rossellini’s account of Man’s Struggle for Survival, in a 1972 letter to the historian of American slavery, Peter Wood, gives a sense of the project’s ambitions:
With Man’s Struggle for Survival, I tried to delineate a general historic picture from the caveman to the man of our time. I showed the passage of the hunting, fishing and fruit-picking epoch to the agricultural civilization, which is matriarchal. It is man’s first step toward living from nature, rather than in nature. Then I describe, with the arrival of the Hellenists in the Mediterranean, the change to a patriarchal society. I tell of the development of the Egyptian civilization, the fall of Rome, the transformation of predatory, barbaric tribes into farmers. The monastic movement with its ideal of prayer and work. The formation of feudal society. The crusades. The advent of the artisans, inhabitants of boroughs; the bourgeoisie. The formation of communal society. The troubadour movement. The foundation of the university. The development of alchemy, the yearning for science. The diffusion of the machine. Christopher Columbus. The beginnings of the scientific era: Galileo, Rabelais, Harvey, Lavoisier, Franklin, Galvani, Volta, Pasteur. Then Watt’s steam engine, Stephenson’s locomotive, Morse’s telegraph, Marconi’s wireless. Finally, the contemporary age: the space adventure, student revolution, the hippies, the bewilderment in which we writhe.footnote2
Totalling over forty hours, these educational works make up a good half of Rossellini’s entire output—a surprising proportion, given that the director is mainly remembered as the father of post-war Italian neo-realism, the director of seminal films like Rome Open City (1945) and Paisà (1946). Even the French Cahiers du cinéma writers, for whom Rossellini had been a canonical figure, generally neglected the substantial body of television work in favour of the maestro’s second ‘great period’, that string of proto-modernist works—Stromboli (1950), Europa 51 (1952), Journey to Italy (1954)—featuring Ingrid Bergman. At the time of their initial broadcast in the 1960s and 70s, former Rossellini admirers like François Truffaut dismissed the pedagogical works entirely.footnote3
Over the past decade, dvd editions of some of these works—Rise to Power of Louis xiv (1966), Blaise Pascal (1971), Age of the Medici (1972), Cartesius (1973)—have begun to appear in Italy, France, the us and uk; seasons of ‘Rossellini’s Television History’ have been screened at the New York Museum of Modern Art and British Film Institute. A collection of Rossellini’s extensive writings and interviews on the project has appeared in France, edited by Adriano Aprà, and Jean-Louis Comolli has devoted a television documentary to it.footnote4 Yet much of Rossellini’s work from this period remains inaccessible to the public, leaving a lacuna in our understanding of an otherwise well-studied filmmaker. Why, from the early 1960s, should the founder of Italian neo-realism, one of the originators of European cinematic modernism, dedicate himself to educational television? This essay will consider the meaning of Rossellini’s pedagogical project as a large-scale, systematic undertaking in its own right. In part, the insistence on treating this body of work as a unified and theoretically grounded project, and taking Rossellini’s claims for it seriously, is a corrective and polemical one. The importance and originality of this output have generally been minimized, for two reasons.
First, and understandably, these works have mainly been discussed within the context of auteurist studies of Rossellini, which have emphasized close readings of individual films and their formal or ‘artistic’ aspects, with less attention to the project’s theoretical positioning and broader context.footnote5 Second, the predominant characterization of them has been that of Rossellini’s English-language biographer, Tag Gallagher, who acts as a kind of official interpreter through his liner notes and ‘video’ essays on the American dvds of the films, and who sees them as little more than modernist art cinema in disguise. Despite his appreciation for them, Gallagher downplays their differences from the rest of Rossellini’s work, dismissing his ambitious conceptual framework for them as a mere cover for business as usual. For Gallagher, Rossellini’s claims of moving beyond art cinema were ‘patent hypocrisy’: ‘he wanted to do non-art but only succeeded at art.’footnote6 Against this prevailing interpretation, I will try to contextualize Rossellini’s later output within a broader cultural and historical framework, to elucidate its theoretical basis and to signal its profound differences with the approach of modernist art cinema. Its significance lies in part in its epochal attempt to re-join art and education, torn asunder by modernism, at the historical moment of the 1960s and 70s, when the status of art and its socio-political agency still seemed open, before the hardening of political-economic realities and the formulation of theories of post-modernism, with their accompanying nostalgia for modernism.footnote7