Roberto Rossellini's "Blaise Pascal" (1971)

"The vacuum, the void, is the face of the infinite. If I seek the void in nature, it's to discover its mirror in the heart of man" declares Rossellini's Blaise Pascal... He also talks about "la mesure infinie du vide", "the infinite measure of the void"...

This is possibly Rossellini's darkest film. Let's hear what Tag Gallagher says:
"Thus Blaise Pascal is a horror movie, like Dreyer's Dies irae (Day of Wrath) (1943). Everything is drenched in suffering, torture, fear, superstition, blood and penance, masses of black, white and scarlet; everyone is writhing in desperate faith, self-mortification and pain. "

The void Pascal Blaise is looking for in nature, is consistently with him, and with others. Everybody seems to have their souls vacuumed out. People talk about joy, but we never see any of it. I think this sense of the void is the key to the film. But there are also many other levels at work...

It's a film where everything is a ritual (even waking up, even death). The trial scenes summarizes all the injustices in the world (and how there are always people who rationalize other people's sufferings). The cause-consequence in the universe is one of the main subjects.

Using Tag Gallagher's words, Blaise Pascal is "a direct experience."

In his wonderful blog post, Dennis Grunes writes that
Blaise Pascal "begins matter-of-factly, in the middle of a conversation in the street, and ends on the threshold of eternity." And he describes Pascal’s death scene as "a sober, stunning, luminous passage."

Tag on Rossellini's late period (which is, for me, the greatest period of the greatest filmmaker):
"To say, as many have, that these movies lack acting, psychoanalysis, Murnau-like expressionism, overwhelming emotions and the richest possible cinematic art is like closing one's eyes at high noon and claiming the sun no longer exists."


Anonymous said…
Is this a joke? "Blaise Pascal" as Rossellini's "darkest" films begs for a redifinition of darkness, as several seem to me far darker, including "Stromboli", "Europa 1951", "Angst", the underrated "Anima nera"... But to describe it as an "horror movie" is just the kind of self-complacent, abusive delusions that wholly and unashamedly betray everything Rossellini meant to do and means for anyone which does not buy such totalitarian catch-phrases: "Everything is drenched in suffering, torture, fear, superstition, blood and penance..." is not only a bad, unfaithful description even of "Vredens Dag", but simply a preposterous, melodramatic faking up of a film and its maker. The next move will be making Rossellini the highest exponent of "gore".
Miguel Marías
Yoel Meranda said…
Hi Miguel,

Thanks for your comments.

No, actually, my post wasn't a joke, and I don't think Tag Gallagher was joking either.

I should say that I haven't seen "Europa 51", or "Angst", or "Anima Nera" (which I'm sure is underrated). All I meant was that "Blaise" is the darkest Rossellini I've seen. And yes, I do think it's far bleaker than "Stromboli". But I understand this is a matter of opinion, taste.

I don't want to speak for Tag but speaking for myself: Of course nobody truly believes "Blaise" is a "horror movie" in the usual genre sense. But watching it, I found myself face to face with an existential void, which was more horrifying, and more truly horrifying than many films from the "horror" genre.

As opposed to many other Rossellini films, I see no redemption in "Blaise" and this was what I tried to express in my post, and with that Tag Gallagher quote.

One could say any comment about a Rossellini film is a betrayal of what he meant to do, because it requires some form of simplification of what's a truly cinematic language. This was one of the reasons why I didn't write about a Rossellini film in this blog until much later. I also still don't have a Robert Breer post. For some things, I lack the words.

Nobody in their right mind, least of all Tag Gallagher, would make Rossellini "the highest exponent of gore". (It was Rossellini who said that "he doesn't deal with trivial things such as sex and violence") And honestly, whatever its faults and its limits, I don't think my post deserves such attacks as you're making.

The words such as "totalitarian catch-phrases", "melodramatic faking up", or "abusive delusions" doesn't help the discussion we should be having.

The infinite measure of the void, without and within, is perfectly expressed in "Blaise Pascal" and that's what I was trying to say, more or less, in my post.
Yoel Meranda said…
By the way, re-reading my post, I realized that I had written "This is possibly Rossellini's darkest film." (emphasizing "possibly").

Now, it's not a sing-along movie, is it?
Anonymous said…
Hi, Yoel, I'm not attacking anything, least of all your blog, which I usually look and often like. But I though you might be being dangerously ironic in your comment, since I know you like very much the later films of Rossellini. I see real danger in trying to be so "original" or so "absolute" (if you prefer that word to "totalitarian") that the object of reflection is totally distorted, especially when it not widely known nor easily available. This happens, I am sorry, ever-increasingly with Tag's writing, that you (as everybody else, for that matter) so much admire, and which I, unfortunately, deeply mistrust; I'm quite sure he is not joking, although I'm afraid he may be playing a bit too much with words. Since Rossellini usually tries to portrait a period, a city, a country, in a moment of crisis, I think few (if any) of his films could be called "sing-along". Not even "Viva l'Italia", "Era notte a Roma" or "Anno uno". As an early supporter of Rossellini's later, TV period, I'm afraid you tend to overestimate it; the reason may be that you have been so far unable to watch several of his earlier movies. It's debatable, I think, whether "Blaise Pascal" is darker or not (in a metaphorical sense, in another it is a very clear, luminous film, which lucidly throws light upon its subject matters; and in any case, it is not bleak or even downbeat, but merely remindful that everything, including every progress or improvement, has a cost) than "Stromboli", but I see no "redemption" at all, either there (Karin merely cries for help, "O my God", begs for strength) or in the ending of "Viaggio in Italia", not to mention the endings of "Europa 1951"; even "Socrate"'s or "Il Messia", "Giovanna d'Arco sul rogo", "Vanina Vanini", "Paisà", "Il miracolo", "Una voce umana", "Dov'è la libertà" or "Il Generale Della Rovere" are not, after all, very happily-ending, I'd say. And I wonder if darkness can be held as a criteria of value or progress, specifically in Rossellini's work. I'm sure he would not have taken it as a compliment.
Miguel Marías
Yoel Meranda said…

I didn't use "darkness" as a value criteria. It was never meant as a compliment. I hope my writings make clear that I don't believe darker films are better, or worse. It's how well something is expressed that matters.

I tried to use the darkness as a description of the movie. I still don't think I was wrong there but this isn't even a very important discussion to have. Different people are affected by different things.

As I wrote before, and acknowledging that any unifying comment about a Rossellini film is bound to be limited, I think the key to "Blaise" is how the infinite void is expressed, storywise, in dialogues and most importantly, through camerawork.

You said in your comment that you think I overestimate Rossellini's late period (a statement you didn't see fit to support with arguments, even subjective ones). I can't know whether I'll change my mind about this at some point but to me "Socrate", "Blaise", "Medici", "Messia", "Agostino", etc. are a lot better than "Germany Year Zero", which is your Rossellini pick for 50 Greatest Films list. I think "Germany Year Zero" is a sublime artwork but calling it the best Rossellinş is a little hard to understand.

You also don't say why you "deeply mistrust" Tag's writings, and why you think he "plays too much with words". In what way?

I am a huge admirer of Tag Gallagher, and I think his contribution to film writing, and to the understanding of Rossellini and Ford (among others) has been immense.

It's wonderful that you were an early supporter of Rossellini's TV period. I would like to read your thoughts on these films, or "Germany Year Zero".
Anonymous said…
Sorry, Yoel, but I don't know what "the infinite void" may be, how it can be expressed or its relationship with either Pascal, Rossellini or "Blaise Pascal" the film. I have written enough about Rossellini (all periods), unfortunately in Spanish. And my comments have been already too long to further explain why I prefer "Deutschland im Jahre Null" (slightly) over "Paisà", "Viaggio in Italia", "La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV", "Era notte a Roma", "Atti degli Apostoli". And no matter how long I tried to explain it, you could not be convinced (and do not need or want to convince you, each person has his own (not entirely explainable) preferences, as each person is most moved by quite different things, feelings, images, melodies. Why not? But maybe before assessing different so-called periods of an artist work one should wait to see it in its entirety. The same goes for my opinion about Tag's evolution. I liked his Ford book. But quite soon after that, deliberately if I understood him well, he chose the road to some sort of success/reputation that certainly he has achieved: your own quotations of him on Rossellini and what I commented about them explain why I do not trust him anymore. And after 20 years along those lines, I find his case quite hopeless, and will not waste our time and your space trying to persuade you of something you won't want to see.
Sorry again, I should have kept my comments to myself, I see people get almost as touchy about any discussion of Gallagher as of Manny Farber.
Miguel Marías
Yoel Meranda said…

I don't agree that I get touchy about Tag Gallagher, or any other subject, it's just that you make personal attacks and not arguments.

This sentence in your last comment is an example to this: "will not waste our time and your space trying to persuade you of something you won't want to see." I may or not be an open-minded person (I sure try...) but calling me non-open-minded about a subject we didn't even have a discussion about is wrong, if not offensive. You can't expect people to change their minds about subjects you don't even see fit to defend with arguments.

You do the same about Tag, you spit out personal attacks (about how he supposedly "chose the road to success") and spend no words in trying to discuss with his books or viewpoints.

I wish there was a discussion or brainstorming on cinema we could have together but you express your thoughts on people, rather than art. I keep this blog to express (and hopefully discuss) opinions/feelings about cinema.
Anonymous said…
Sorry, Yoel, but you say yourself you are "a huge admirer" of Tag, and "huge" admirers or "fans" are not easily persuaded of anything, even if I have not the slightest interest in convincing you of anything.
I have no grudge against Tag, I met him, and we had some talks, and I thought he was joking when he said certain things about his future work, which I saw afterwards, unhappily, were no jokes. He has not changed since, so I don't trust his opinions and still less his "arguments". And I don't try to make you cease admiring him, it's good to have someone you can admire. I only tried to suggest that one thing is to admire and quite another to follow blindly, and that to take at face value certain statements or try to emulate them in your writing is dangerous.
You ask me for motives, reasons, arguments for several quite large issues, from Rossellini to Gallagher, but you don't give much of these yourself, neither seem to ask Tag's books for them, where they certainly would have more room. I think what I have said of Rossellini's movies is neither far-fetched nor unreasonable. It is NOT MY contention that "Blaise Pascal" is terribly "dark", or a "horror film", or that in it "everything is drenched in suffering, torture..." (I'll skip the rest), statements which the film itself would deny. Someone reading such descriptions will then see "Blaise Pascal" and will not recognize it. That's the danger, unfortunately quite usual in film commentators, of trying to be brilliant or being carried away by enthusiasm, which doesn't help to make the movies rightly understood and appreciated.
I see no personal attacks in my words, either against you (why should I?) or against Tag Gallagher. I simply re-read all his phrases and can't help wondering what may he trying to say or convey. I'm sorry to say that most do not really mean anything at all. As I told you earlier, I liked almost unreservedly (with minor exceptions) his book on Ford, but I can't say the same about the one on Rossellini or most of the longish essays he's written in the last 20 years. Mind that I'd like to find them really great, and to see him return to form, or his true thinking, and I still go on reading him in that hope.
Understand me, I find your blog interesting, I sympathize with it, and it astonished me to suddenly find some very strange, uncharacteristic comments about of all films, "Blaise Pascal". That's why I made a comment. But of course you may do as you wish, I promise not to bother you anymore.
Miguel Marías
Yoel Meranda said…

Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm very glad you like my blog. I welcome discussion in this blog, and would like to have more of it, which is why I try to be nice despite your attacks such as "abusive delusions". It's up to the others to decide but I'd like to think that I wasn't bothered by your criticism, but by your lack of criticism.

It is the patronizing attitude in your comments that I don't appreciate, example from your last comment below:
"And I don't try to make you cease admiring him, it's good to have someone you can admire. I only tried to suggest that one thing is to admire and quite another to follow blindly, and that to take at face value certain statements or try to emulate them in your writing is dangerous."

I personally think it's not good to admire someone if you're following them blindly. And it's not good to follow the wrong people.

You say I also don't propose arguments, but my whole post was full of arguments trying to explain why I liked "Blaise" and why it's such a sublime work. I keep repeating the reason why I like "Blaise". You might find it superficial, or unrelated, but you never explained your thoughts on "Blaise". Do you like the film? And why?

Tag's book is an encyclopedia, an argument-heaven defending Rossellini's full oeuvre and particular works. On one of his comments about "Lust for Life" (on my blog) Edo Choi wrote:

"In some sense, I view criticism as an attempt to find the right language for a given work of art. I like things that seem to 'fit' with the art as I've experienced it, rather than just analyze. This is why I hate a lot of academic writing, even if it is perceptive."

Tag's language sometimes gets poetic (while also being extremely analytical), which is, for me, a necessary component of film criticism. Poetry is needed to explain poetry, using the word in the Crocean sense. (Wow, such an unashamed, incurable Gallagher fan I am).

I use quotes by Tag all the time. Was this the first time the quote was disturbing to you?

And if you choose to stop the conversation, thanks a lot for taking my post seriously enough to attack it! And no, I'm really not joking, I mean it very seriously.
Anonymous said…
Sorry to intrude again, but you force me. First, you don't need to explain to me why do you like "Blaise Pascal" (or any other film), and I did not think I had to explain to you why I do very much like it (it's perhaps, with "Cartesius", of Rossellini's '70s work), although it is not certainly by any one of the things you mentioned (the darkness, the horror, all very melodramatic, rather than poetic) that bothered me in the first place, things which in part would be your own, in part sounded to me like "gallagheries". But if you continue to feel I'm attacking you or that I'm patronizing because you follow blindly Tag (or any other), which I felt but you seem to acknowledge now!, then we won't be able to have any discussion. You remind me too much of Tag, who gets sore at the smallest disagreement or reserve. I wonder how deeply you have read Benedetto Croce's writings, and since when do you know him. When he was already researching on Rossellini Tag had not even hear Croce's name (no wonder, he's regrettably outmoded since the '60s), and I'm sorry to say I do not think he has properly understood either Croce (which I happen to have read long before) or many other aspects of Catholicism, Italian politics and the such on which he dwells, together with a lot of gossip (rather than the films themselves) in his Rossellini book. Maybe you are too young and feel attacked too easily, but it is not easy to deal with touchy persons.
Miguel Marías
Yoel Meranda said…

This was just another comment from you talking about people, and not about the art of cinema.

Obviously I have things to say, but there's no point in going on with this.
jeanli said…
ok just seeing this blog post now, as last night I finally watched Blaise Pascal at Anthology Film ARchives--to a nearly packed house I might add-- and felt the origins of Camus' statement on Yves Klein "With the Void, full powers"--see Hirschorn exhibit up now in DC for this experience. Anway horror as in 'horror vacuui', bien sur. I am still awash in this film experience, but wanted only to add to this excellent post on Blaise Pascal the quality of the sound track, a most avant-garde approach if you will, to the repetitive drone as a form of the void; wierd, within, and otherwordly.
Yoel Meranda said…
Thanks Jeanli for your wonderful comments! I'm really jealous you got to see it on 35mm (and at Anthology too)

I'm very glad you note the soundtrack, I think the use of sound in Rossellini is truly underrated (I know he didn't care about the dubbing, and I know he didn't care about the sound, etc. Doesn't really matter... The sound is always amazing in a Rossellini film!) I perfectly agree: "wierd, within, and otherwordly."

Truly recommend you Tag Gallagher's chapter on the film in his Rossellini book, if you haven't already read it.

Anonymous said…
What silly reactionary tosh, Marías. From the looks of it, it is you who is into totalizing the poetics of subjective aesthetic appreciation.
Anonymous said…
Those who can, do. Those who can't, write silly blogs about movies. :)

You may call me ANTOINE

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