First, some stats for anyone looking for "official" validation of this movie. In the Village Voice End of the Century poll of movie critics, THE RISE OF LOUIS THE XIV placed behind only THE BICYCLE THIEF among all films directed by the major Italian neo-realists (De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini). I myself find this to be a stunning result, given that what other Italio-neo-reo films there are (OSEESSIONE, OPEN CITY, PAISAN, LA TERRA TREMA, UMBERTO D, VOYAGE TO ITALY, SENSO, THE LEOPARD...) but LOUIS XIV's placing is not undeserved. In fact, in its own perverse way, it may very well be the apotheosis of the neo-realist aesthetic.
I make this claim on several counts. First, of the Rossellini films I've seen, this one is pretty much the only one where Rossellini makes a wholesale abandonment of melodrama and completely embraces an objective documentary style that generates meaning through the patient, cumulative observation of scenes and settings. To really see the progression, we can make a comparison between this film and his earlier masterpiece STROMBOLI. Both films feature a protagonist at odds with his/her community, especially in matters of ritual and custom, which both films do an astounding job of capturing. Of course, whereas the heroine of STROMBOLI rejects these rituals and customs, eventually leading to her exile, Louis XIV decides to play the rules of his society to his advantage, literally wearing his hedonism and flamboyance on his sleeve -- and everyone else's. But this difference does not reflect what has evolved in Rossellini's filmmaking. The key difference is that with LOUIS XIV Rossellini does not once resort to the stormy passions or underlying rhetoric of his ealier work -- instead he chooses to let the moments speak for themselves. The moments he captures achieve a level of unspoken subtext unparalleled among his peers; nothing is given away as obvious, every moment and gesture feels utterly natural, and yet must be read and interpreted to generate the film's overall meaning.
The achievement is all the more remarkable given that the film itself is largely about the power of presentation -- which is certainly a central aesthetic theme of the entire neo-realist movement. Though the film is set in an ornate past that seemingly has nothing to do with the impoverished environs that have set the stage for countless neo-realist films, this radical change of time and place only adds more depth to the film's exploration of realism. Just as Louis creates an ornate reality full of lush surfaces with which to control his subjects, Rossellini has created a reality that is so detailed that it threatens to consume the audience in the illusion of a recreated time and place.
However, the generally maudlin cinematic powers wielded by DeSica/Zavattini, Visconti and early Rossellini seem almost totalitarian compared to what Rossellini does in LOUIS XIV -- people who complain that this movie is a slow, lethargic bore are missing the wonders of the observant moment that Rossellini constructs for our scrutiny. So much of the film is told in non-chalant moments, such as the dying bishop refusing to see the king until he has put on his makeup, or the way King Louis nonchalantly takes his mistress behind a bush while the rest of the procession is forced to stand by and wait. Like Louis' subjects, the audience of the film inhabits a perilous position, where either they dig their way through the seemingly harmless and inconsequential surfaces of what's being presented or risk being stranded in a meaningless cinematic experience. To which one may ask, what incentive does the audience have for having to try this hard? Well, a new appreciation of how cinema works, as well as history and politics, for starters, not to mention how all three might work together. With this film, Rossellini finally turns over what the neo-realist movement had been doing all along, knowingly or not: using the presentation of "reality" as a political act. This time, instead of spoon-feeding the audience with his agenda, he invites us to assume the position of power, taking an active role in the making of meaning.
I've gone on for much longer than I expected but now that I've given this film a lengthy moment of consideration I am convinced that this is one of the most brilliantly understated masterpieces of cinema -- now I can't decide whether I like this film more than STROMBOLI. In any event, it is also one of the greatest historical films, as well as one of the greatest films to examine the idea and nature of history -- as such it belongs in the company of THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS, PLATFORM, CITY OF SADNESS and THE PUPPETMASTER (or if those are too high-falutin', there's simpler stuff like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE).
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