4 May 2014 | chaos-rampant
The disembodied reason
At first glance this is the most tedious of Rossellini's portraits, double the length, with even more repetitive talk about a more abstract subject: the correct use of mind. The character is portrayed in the most distant light of all. The tensions are the most faint: Descartes has to fight prejudice like Socrates in a previous film by Rossellini but he's never really troubled, he has to worry about the Church but he can safely publish in tolerant Holland.
The most interesting way to experience the man would be in the course of making his observations: it would have to be visual, internal, in space. Not very educational; a different thing altogether than Rossellini tried with any of these things. Instead we have only the expositions of thought in long monologues, the sober history.
It's all there in a roundabout way. In a nutshell what Descartes was doing was this: the senses are unreliable and I have reason to doubt them, the world tentative, the only thing that is concretely known to me is that 'I think'. This was his anchor from which to reconstruct all the other stuff.
Now the observations are central in the sense that we needed someone to come up with the first intuitions so we could have a picture of what to correct and overcome. Indispensable in his time when mind was all sorts of muddled ideas bundled together, with hindsight we can see that in his quest for absolute clarity he severed a lot of vital nuance that we've been putting back in.
So, tedious and dry if you stick to the thought, educative. But if you see past his 'I' that thinks and thinks and into the pooled space of life in which it appears?
Rossellini's Socrates offered warm interrogation. Descartes does haughty exposition. Socrates was also concerned with drawing limits to reason but it was to free thought. Descartes wants to make it concrete. One man therapeutic, the other arrogant and dogmatic in his way. This is why Rossellini includes his erroneous views on the boiling heart and fluid heavens around an immovable earth, we're meant to see a sometimes presumptuous man who is prone to error as much as anyone.
One reviewer seems to think that Rossellini undertook the project to celebrate reason over prejudice, not quite of course. That's only one side of it. Rossellini contemplates both sides; and does it with the hand of a cinematic master.
Another reviewer deems this worthy for classroom use; I agree, it's a solid exposition and likely the only one on the subject that we're going to have for a long time. But I'd also draw attention to this mechanical view of life that results from it; people are like trees in a forest Descartes muses, inanimate nature, his newborn baby is a perfect machine of nature, in the end when he grieves he wants to 'extinguish the senses' and withdraw to reflect.
(Exercise: put the man to the test, try to not think. It's okay to learn stuff, but how about we actually see our own mind for a change? Sit somewhere quiet, eyes closed, relax the body, focus on the breath thinking nothing. When the mind strays in thought gently bring it back. This is the preliminary for Buddhist meditation, so you can snoop around the web for better instructions, the concept is the same. Descartes was not trying to model some other 'I', it was this one in his own mind. What happens? Where is I?)