Covering the last years of the life of Socrates, the world’s greatest teacher whom the State condemned to death for “corrupting youth,” Roberto Rossellini’s brilliant Socrate was shot in Spain, originally, for French television; but it is the Italian-language version that we now watch. It is one of the extraordinary series of Rossellini’s present-tense histories, beginning with The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966), that portrays famous individuals in their place and times, their sociopolitical context. Socrate begins in 404 B.C., just after the Spartans have conquered Athens. It consists mostly of talk: Socrates’s private sessions with his class of student/disciples; his public trial. We become a fly on a white toga.
Socrates corrupted no one; but he advocated reason—a threat to the State. For the State, the highest priority is its own continuation, its perpetual grip on power. In its eyes, this requires that the individual embraces the superiority of rulers and their rule. Reason, on the other hand, prompts individuals to reach their own conclusions as to which ideas are best—rather than might makes right, inquiry and discourse arrive at truth.
Rossellini identifies with Socrates, and (offscreen) he plays Plato at Socrates’s trial. (The script draws generously from Plato’s works, where Socrates is the main figure.) Given the arms race and the Vietnam War, Rossellini finds himself in an Age of Unreason. His filmmaking is calm and intense, suited to the tension between Socrates’s humble resolve and the State’s agitated insecurity. At one point Socrates tells his students: “If you look [directly] at the sun, you burn your eyes. Therefore, you must study it reflected. The soul goes blind if it looks only at details. What you examine, therefore, must be reflected in reason”—such “reason” as the cinema of Roberto Rossellini.
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