A group of scientists, we learned last week, want to have the corpse of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) exhumed in order that DNA tests be performed to determine the exact condition of Galileo’s eyesight, from which might be reconstructed just what he saw of the planets while looking through his telescope. This immediately reminded me of Joseph Losey’s film Galileo, in which a quip attributes to Galileo’s troubled vision his advocation of the Copernican assertion that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. It is Galileo himself who had introduced the Dutch telescope to Venice.
This film was important to Losey. For one thing, the U.S.-born filmmaker fled to England in the fifties to avoid being blacklisted, that is, persecuted for his politics and prevented from working. An artist who became great because of this relocation, Losey thus identified with Galileo, whom the Roman Catholic Church opposed, beseiged, humiliated. But more than that, the celebrated author of the play upon which the film is based, Bertolt Brecht, had mentored Losey, and Losey had made a film about Charles Laughton’s stage production of Brecht’s Galileo in 1947. Now he made a film of the play. The results were variable.
The action covers the years 1609 to 1633. Galileo’s move to Florence stripped him of the protection of the Venetian state, setting up his collision course with the Church, which insisted on the Earth’s centrality in the solar system, contrary to evidence, as a matter of dogma.
But Losey’s film is not a piece of pageantry, a vague confrontational historical melodrama along the lines of Fred Zinnemann’s hollow film about Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons (1966). It attempts to show the pressures that power exerts to still the advances of scientific and other thought. We Americans, having endured the last eight years of George W. Bush’s assault on science, as well as the film industry’s much more sustained assault on non-commercial film artists, can certainly relate.
Scientists can be cowed, but science itself remains innocent, pure. To convey this, Losey summons the film’s finest aspect: a three-boy choir that opens the film and many times reappears as a kind of Greek chorus, over the years nonetheless not aging, existing outside of time in order to reflect on this “innocence” of science in the face of power’s attempt to compromise, crush and silence it. Moreover, the action itself begins with a child, Andreà Sarti, who becomes Galileo’s disciple, who turns on his mentor when Galileo recants statements upon threats from the Church. Sarti, grown, notes, “Unhappy is the land that has no hero,” to which Galileo, more or less a Church-dictated prisoner in his own home, ruefully responds: “Wrong. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
Too little of the film, however, relies on visual expressiveness. While not so boring as Zinnemann’s film, Losey’s comes perilously close. Without a doubt, Roberto Rossellini, whose film about René Descartes, Cartesio, appeared soon after, would have been a better man for the job.
Galileo’s summary line, “The sole aim of science, to my mind, is to lighten the load of . . . human existence”: I don’t quite know how I feel about it.
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