“[Pascal] was a very boring man, who never made love in his life.” — Roberto Rossellini
One of the most beautiful of Roberto Rossellini’s unsentimental, highly analytic, deeply moving present-tense histories, Blaise Pascal examines seventeenth-century Europe from the perspective of a scientist, philosopher and mathematician who helped change the world by advancing the cause of reason. Among his many accomplishments, Pascal invented the mechanical adding machine.
The film begins matter-of-factly, in the middle of a conversation in the street, and ends on the threshold of eternity. Pascal’s painfully difficult life ended before he was forty.
The first movement is extraordinary. Pascal is a young man under the wing of his father, a Parisian official. Pascal’s father is dedicated to reason. He is one of the judges at the trial of a maidservant who has been accused of witchcraft. Stubborn, she would not confess to her pact with Satan until her legs were broken; she is in court on a stretcher. Badgered, she declares, “I’ll confess to everything,” meaning, whatever charge is leveled against her. Her wish now is to be burned so that she might reclaim her soul. Rossellini’s method enables us—in my case, for the first time—to penetrate a facet of the establishment mindset from the inside, as well as be objective; we get to see irrationality as it is most rationally pursued—by men, that is, who cannot imagine their own irrationality. Pascal, who is sitting in, remarks to his father afterwards he is bewildered by what he saw in the courtroom.
Pascal’s life is consumed by his struggle to know God. But how? “To penetrate infinity,” he tells Descartes, “we need a multitude of methods.” Subtly, mystically lit, Pascal’s death scene intimates Rossellini’s, if not God’s, mercy across time—a sober, stunning, luminous passage.
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